Photo by Tenaya HillsAn Argentine, the joke goes, is anItalian who speaks Spanish and thinks he's British. And although I never got the "joke" part—the saying isn't even ha-ha funny—its insight rings true. Argentines are notoriously snooty like our Atlantic cousins, and many trace their roots to Italian immigrants, who introduced an obsession for pasta and wine to Argentina's diet and an annoying lilting accent to the country's Spanish during the early 20th century.
It's not surprising, then, that most county Argentine restaurants sell Italian standards alongside their traditional herds of meat platters and soccer broadcasts. But discovering the opposite—Italian trattorias with Argentine entrées—is slightly more difficult. Americans don't like any disruptions in their eating-out routine—if they go to a pizzeria or spaghetti house, they don't want steamed blood sausage on the menu. So most local Italian-Argentine restaurants hide their dual identities beneath mundane names that draw in Americans with comfort, then surprise them with gaucho grub.
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The most famous local example is Pasta Connection(1902 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, 949-646-3484; 2145 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, 714-541-0053; www.pastaconnection.net). If you haven't dined at this Elmer Dills-approved chain, you're at least familiar with its logo—a picture of a howling toddler with spaghetti dripping from his head, an Orange County advertising icon as beloved as Mickey Mouse or the Spanky's guy. Argentina's flag hangs proudly at the Costa Mesa location alongside those from the United States and Italy, a tribute to the triple roots of owner Luís Rodríguez. As the name suggests, Pasta Connection likes to prepare pasta—silky fettuccines, blockish raviolis and lasagnas that look like a Bicycle pinochle deck. There are no actual Argentine meals save for so-so empanadas, but the dessert options sweetly distract you from this oversight. Puffy, caramel-filled cookies called alfajores are great but available at other places; instead, fork through the postre chajá, a Uruguayan confection of meringue, cream and apricot filling that's the country's only other contribution to world culture besides homosexual puns off its name.
Carpi's Pizza & Deli (320 E. Katella Ave., Ste. H, Orange, 714-639-3551) also specializes in pastas—its vegetarian lasagna, homey with carrot morsels, spinach strands, subtle marinara sauce and bumpy ricotta, is an ideal antidote for these brutal December chills. But more memorable at this cluttered gem—every section of the tiny deli that's not a table or wine case are paintings and pictures of Buenos Aires, tango dancers or tango idol Carlos Gardel—are the Argentine specialties squeezed within its sparse menu. The empanadas are flaky stunners: toasted brown, melted with a stretchy mozzarella, and encasing a thick ham slice curled within its buttery crust. Carpi's dabbles in biculturalism with sandwiches such as the matambre (flank steak studded with shreds of hard-boiled egg, carrots, peppers and garlic) and the golden-breaded beef cut milanesa, both South American takes on Milanese culinary traditions. Wholly Argentine, however, is the parillada, a steel grill containing five different types of beef: blood sausage, ribs, sweetbreads, flank steak and skirt steak. The parillada is available only for dinner, presumably because bathrooms are easier to occupy for hours at night than during the day.
Not to be outdone by Argentines, Peruvians also sneak their cuisine into some Orange County Italian restaurants. Visit, for instance, Sebastiani's Italian Bistro (6078 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach, 714-841-3619; www.sebastianis.net), a beautiful hole-in-the-wall that doesn't deserve its exile in a Surf City strip mall. Sebastiani's only cooks Peruvian for lunch, and then, it's solely seafood favorites such as puckering ceviches, the paella-like arroz con mariscos (rice sautéed alongside mussels and lemon-soaked fish strips) and spicy shrimp concoctions that could bore through a manhole. But owner Pablo Benavente does reference his Peruvian roots during the Italian dinners. Before you chow through an extensive, expensive gustatory tour of Southern Italy—highlights include powerfully herbed cannelloni, filling risotto and multiple chicken dishes—Benavente trots out a thimble of ají, the deceptively spicy Andean condiment, for your bread-spreading pleasure.
At least Sebastiani's acknowledges its Italian and Peruvian heritage; despite its name, La Pizza Grotto (13008 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, 714-750-7343; www.lapizzagrotto.com) makes no such effort. The snacks of choice here are strictly Peruvian, from popular selections such as tender rotisserie chicken and chilled-Velveeta-drenched papas à la huancaina to more deliciously esoteric choices such as cau cau (diced potato sautéed with chewy, pale tripe) and salchipapas, hot dog slices buried under French fries, a meal destined for baseball stadiums. La Pizza Grotto does maintain a neighborhood pizzeria feel, but futbol banners stand in for football pennants and all the big screens flash highlights from Latin American soccer leagues. Its namesake pies are a Brawnee-tasting afterthought; the pasta roster is no different from your local supermarket's Chef Boyardee aisle. But La Pizza Grotto redeems itself as an Italian-Peruvian hybrid thanks to the tallarínes, twirling networks of spaghetti strands drenched with ají and tomato sauce. Its pasta pedigree is Italian, the sauce is Incan, and the combination is quintessentially immigrant: something old, something new, something spicy, and something few Americans will ever try.