Sonny's and Share

Photo by Joy BastThere's a Italian-food rite of passage, beginning with Chef Boyardee when you're 4, progressing through pizza and spaghetti, and reaching its apex at the point where you can both pronounce and appreciate a good scaloppine ai funghi tartufati. This noodles-to-gnocchi evolution depends on your desire to pursue the really good stuff. But regardless of your commitment, a solid chunk of this transformation involves what I like to call Monster Sauce.

A Monster Sauce is the beast of Italian food:a thick, tomatoey, acidic, garlic-and-oregano-rich lava that ruins your clothes, deflowers your taste buds, and leaves you curled up on the couch with the mother of all heartburns. But—daaaaammmmmnnn—a good Monster Sauce is nearly orgasmic in the pleasures it brings.

The border between daaaaammmmmnnn and intestinal hemorrhaging is slight, so there is some collateral damage in trying to find a good Monster Sauce. (By the way: I just tried a great jarred Monster Sauce: Bombolina from the Paul Newman collection. It kicks ass. But I digress.)

In Orange County, Sonny's Pizza and Pasta in San Clemente makes one of my favorite Monster Sauces. The marinara here is almost fluorescent in color, chewy with bits of tomato in texture, and so bombastic in flavor that a good forkful will clear your sinuses. It's a thing of beauty, and it's omnipresent at Sonny's.

The basic Sonny's pasta dish has this sauce ladled on your choice of spaghetti, mostaccioli or rigatoni with the options of Italian sausage or meatballs the size of your fist. The noodles come in great piles slathered with what seems like a pint of sauce. It's awe-inspiring in the way The Spruce Goose once seemed, like something out of the gargantuan vision of illustrator Bruce McCall's Zany Afternoon. One plate of this stuff can feed three.

For the more refined, Sonny's offers some two dozen dinner specials. Some feature the Monster Sauce; others offer the option of white clam sauce. I tried this clam sauce on the jumbo seafood shells —which were stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach with bits of shrimp and crab—and the dish came to my table still bubbling-hot, the puddles of oil blopping like a hot spring; it took 15 minutes to cool down enough to eat. Just an idea, Sonny: maybe your dinner specials shouldn't be served boiling. But I digress.

The white clam sauce tasted fine, but it wasn't the Apocalypse Now that is the Big Red. A variation on the Beast is featured on one of Sonny's truly fine dishes: the stuffed chicken breast (stuffed with Italian ham, mushrooms, onions and cheese, in case you're wondering) is baked in a sweet tomato-and-basil sauce and served on a bed of tortellini. It's kind of expensive at $14, but it's about the best thing on the menu.

I would be remiss not to mention the other half of that menu—the pizza. The thin-crust version is a staple of the close-knit San Clemente beach community. (The Roman Orgy has everything you'd want on it, including your choice of anchovy.) If you eat at Sonny's on a weekend night, the stream of people shuffling into the restaurant to pick up their pies resembles the gentle, slightly celebratory, slightly somnambulant push for an Easter Communion wafer. And if you're wondering what makes Sonny's pizza so damn good, it's the sauce. Anyone surprised?

Sonny's Pizza and Pasta, located at 429 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (949) 498-2540. Dinner for two, $30, food only. Beer and wine. AmEx, Discover, MC, Visa accepted.

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