Meatballs for the Masses at Rustica

For all the worldly sophistication chef Grant MacPherson is supposed to bring to Rustica, the new Italian restaurant that replaced Francoli at Fashion Island, what would you guess to be the most popular dish sold? That’s right: spaghetti and meatballs.

Judging from what other customers in my immediate vicinity were having, the Lady and the Tramp cliché seemed to be the meal of choice that Saturday night. To the right of me, a wrinkled pensioner dined alone, slowly twirling his pasta with a fork in one hand, a thick paperback in the other. To the left, two fidgety prepubescent boys with napkins tucked into their collars slurped it up noisily while their parents shared a salad, bulging shopping bags at their feet.

Rustica—wedged into a corner near the new Nordstrom—has an open floor plan. The kitchen, the main dining room and the patio feel the same breeze that blows through from the fountain-anchored courtyard outside. It is a casual place. Tables are bare wood, placemats are cut from butcher paper, and right now, reservations are tight, even if most diners will order spaghetti and meatballs. Yes, you can get the dish anywhere, but you should ask for it just the same.

Tasting of the fresh tomato from whence it came—just sweet enough but not cloying, slightly tart—Rustica’s bright marinara coats every noodle strand, further animating the meatballs, which are well-seasoned and well-proportioned. More important, there were enough of the beefy orbs to go with every forkful of pasta, plus a few extra to nudge toward your partner as a signal of your affection.

Yes, it was a great bowl of spaghetti, but being that it is one dish out of many on a menu that doesn’t stray too far from what most people not named Batali would regard as Italian cuisine, I can’t decide whether it was a calculated move by a smart chef or just a peddle-to-the-masses choice of a risk-averse one.

MacPherson markets himself as the seasoned executive chef from the Wynn and the Bellagio, but with these dishes, you get the feeling the Vegas transplant isn’t much of a betting man. Presumably, he’s seen what the general public wants and will pay for—and he’s decided not to gamble on guanciale or squid-ink pasta. You’ll see nothing coming out of his kitchen that isn’t familiar or comfortable.

This is not to say MacPherson is playing to the lowest common denominator. Most of his dishes are expertly done and well thought-out. The golden-beet salad, for instance, is uncanny in its ability to put a backyard garden’s worth of flavors in your mouth all at once. The arugula and cubed beets resonate with a deep-noted presence and the essence of earth. The balsamic dribbles and goat-cheese crumbles sing the high notes. Somewhere in the middle, crispy fried nuggets of polenta assume the role of crouton, there to assert temperature and textural difference in the salad.

The silken three-mushroom risotto has the right amount of firmness and gumminess. A nest of sautéed mushrooms rests on top, releasing its umami into the dish the more you mix it in. Then there’s the scallop entrée featuring four plump and perfectly pan-seared cylinders. The best part, though, was a lump of wilted spinach that soaked up the bacon-flavored sauce like a thirsty mop. This dish is where MacPherson’s simple, play-it-safe approach shows clear vision.

Other dishes could’ve done with a little more risk-taking. An overpriced side of baby carrots and pine nuts is essentially just the boiled school-cafeteria veggie lubed in butter. The pine nuts did nothing but allow them to put two extra words on the menu.

The fried zucchini was another near-miss. Though greaseless and fried to a snappy center beneath an immaculate crumbly crust, someone forgot to salt the spears—an omission made more ironic when you realize that sea salt was listed as an ingredient. For flavor, you relied instead on dragging the things through an oily, peppy, spicy romesco sauce—an Asian sambal doppelganger—which had more than a surplus of boldness to go around.

Perhaps the most strategic bluff by the man is that he calls his pizzas flatbreads. It’s a clever move. Doing so makes them impervious to criticism as a pizza—because they’re not. The appetizer-sized four-cheese flatbread, in particular, with its dense and dull chew, tastes more like an inside-out quesadilla. A riskier bet, I think, would be just to call it that.

Rustica, 1133 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 706-8282; Open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Starters, $10-$14; entrées, $14-$28. Full bar.


This review appeared in print as “Meatballs for the Masses: Rustica sticks with the familiar and comfortable, but that’s all right.”

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