The Return of the Native
Restaurateurs are a notoriously fickle bunch, and 2005 saw some of Orange County's most celebrated—the Goodells, Takashi Abe, Brad Toles of Savoury's fame—leave their popular establishments. But no disappearance was more perplexing than that of Massimo Navarretta. His Scampi in Costa Mesa was the Ben Roethlisberger of local Italian restaurants for about 15 years—a humble, overlooked jewel that won a loyal following through Navarretta's hard work in the kitchen, in presentation, in everything.
Scampi's customers were loyal, and business remained steady through the years. But Navarretta closed Scampi with little warning early last year, vowing to return with something bigger and better. Months passed. And passed. The regulars became restless. Then Navarretta finally reappeared in November just south of the Lab with Onotria. Scampi's old crowd quickly filled the expansive restaurant; newbies soon joined them, and all discovered Navarretta is a man of his word: Onotria not only retains the cozy feel of Scampi but features an experimental menu that bests any Newport Beach buzz restaurant at half the cost.
A gourmet experience seems improbable, however, when you first visit Onotria. It's just to the side of the 73 freeway. There's valet parking, but your car will share spaces with nearby apartment tenants or get exiled to a dark industrial-park corridor. But you'll quickly forget those grimy attributes inside Onotria, where Navarretta has transformed what was Arnie's Manhattan Deli into something worthy of Napa. The ceilings are high, the lighting soft. During the day, big windows flood every corner of the restaurant with natural light. Navarretta has planted vines just outside those windows; he hopes to use their grapes in his summer cooking—and expects the vines will obscure the view of Bristol Street traffic.
Navarretta is a massive man, with arms as thick as timber. He approaches every table armed with recommendations and arias. Onotria's menu might seem intimidating at first glance because Navarretta organizes his entrées and appetizers according to the wines he feels suit them best—dry reds with red meats, for instance, or sweet, wet chardonnays with the seafood.
Therein lies the allure. I've been to Onotria almost half a dozen times now, picking and choosing between the different sub-menus and wines, and I'll return again and again. There is just too much I still haven't tried. I've forked through osso bucco as soft as butter—and just as flavorful as the last time I visited, when I paired it with potatoes spruced up with a crispy, minty herb. I've dined on wild boar packed into a pasta folded with origamic delicacy, which I slopped inelegantly onto an eggplant bruschetta layered with salty goat cheese. I started another meal with a luscious chorizo and cannellini bean soup and finished with a pasta smeared with goat cheese, white truffle essence and a mascarpone sauce—the heartiest sweet dish I've enjoyed since pineapple-and-raisin tamales. I had to share the roasted lamb leg with a pal—the thing was huge!—but the gaminess of lamb remained strong against the sharp flavors of garlic and a rosemary reduction. Onotria's lunchtime venison burger—sparse but massive, combined only with onions and mushrooms—helped me get over the loss of Carl's Jr.'s mini-cheeseburger.
But whenever someone tells me they'll visit Onotria, I make them promise to order the pheasant. Few things disappoint me more than knowing so few among us have enjoyed the pleasures of quail, of pigeon, of fried Cornish hen or a crispy goose and the other exotic birds that grace Orange County menus. So I implore you: order Onotria's pheasant. Not content with its natural sweetness, Navarretta displays a Middle Eastern flair, adding pine nuts and golden raisins and infusing everything in a sweet wine sauce. It's a dish of beauty, a dinner that will enthrall and fill, and proof that the greats can take breaks for months, even years, and return to form immediately. Just don't leave us hanging again, Massimo Navarretta, capice?
ONOTRIA, 2831 BRISTOL ST., COSTA MESA, (714) 641-5952; WWW.ONOTRIA.COM. OPEN MON.-FRI., 11:30 A.M.-2:30 P.M. & 5:30-10 P.M.; SAT., 5:30-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $40-$80, EXCLUDING WINE. FULL BAR.
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