True Believers

Photo by Keith MayHalf-Italian, I've eaten at my fair share of Italian restaurants, including the Olive Garden (Il Ristorante Denny's), and there is nothing so warming, so perfect or authentic as (please hold your breath) Lido Shipyard Sausage Co. and Sabatino's Family Restaurant in Newport Beach.

Wanting to share the wealth, I recently invited two dear friends, Sarah and Tara, to dine there with me. We were warmly greeted by Sam Romeo, our host for the evening and a thoroughly engaging Italian gentleman who patted our backs and squeezed our arms as he assured us our table would soon be ready. We were quickly seated in a cozy corner of the backroom, where the walls are painted floor to ceiling with Mediterranean scenes: a waterfront Italian villa, a monk in a wine cellar, "tasting" his monastery's reserve straight from the bottle.

Then came the food, like an explosion at the back end of a cornucopia: an ample basket of pre-sliced baguettes, butter and a three-jarred container of fresh Parmesan, crushed red peppers and giardinera (literally, "garden"), a concoction of sliced green olives, onions, tarragon and olive oil. Sarah, a wine goddess with the Henry Wine Group, selected a bottle of Speri Amarone for our pleasure. Imported from the Piedmont region and made from raisinated Molinara, Corvina and Rodinella grapes, it truly was, as Sarah said, "a red wine for people who don't like red wine." Waiting for our entrées, we sank back into the muted light, drank the wine and had the kind of conversation good friends have at the end of a great year.

Then our sausage appetizer arrived. According to the menu, the Sabatino family began making sausages in Sicily in 1864. I have not authenticated this fact, but this much is apparent: the meat is lean, and standing in for the usual binding agent (that would be lard) is Sicilian goat's milk cheese. The sausage is made on the premises; unlike the production of legislation, I would like to see the making of this sausage. It is meaty, clean and flavorful. The platter is served with green and red bell peppers cooked to perfection—so perfect that when I cut into a green pepper, it squirted me in the eye but didn't sting.

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We were full when dinner arrived, but we started to work anyhow. Sarah's mostaccioli, Tara's cannelloni and my stuffed pasta roll were incredible. You'll excuse me for not elaborating, understanding that there was much exultation and sharing, after which we surrendered.

Or almost surrendered. We retreated to the patio, regrouped and made a final assault on the dessert and espresso. The tiramisù ("lift me up," in English) is a thick square of smooth, hand-whipped cream, layered on a bed of ladyfingers bathed in rum and espresso; Sabatino's may make the best in Orange County. The Night in a Blanket—a crepe filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with strawberry, zabaglione and chocolate sauces—was nothing short of amazing

We spent a very Italian two and a half hours at Sabatino's, lingering over the espresso and assisted by the attentive waitstaff; we marveled at the food in this somewhat obscure restaurant. A quote on the menu, attributed to Sabatino Ognibene in 1864, says it best: "Knowing you can't believe what you hear, read and sometimes even see, you can believe in what you taste." We are believers.

The Lido Shipyard Sausage Co. and Sabatino's Family Restaurant, located at 251 Shipyard Way, Newport Beach, is open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (949) 723-0621. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $60, food only. AMEX , DISCover, MC and visa accepted.

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