This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Barolo Cafe is probably the most expensive restaurant I'll ever review in this column, a place where dinner for two will set you back 50 bucks. But everything else about this charming trattoria screams dive: the banter between the owner and waiters in Italian. The gorgeous mural of a vineyard. The tiny dining room. The Latino busboys. Barolo's location—in the same shopping center as a Jenny Craig and a Souplantation.

And the food.

Barolo takes its name from a famous Italian wine, and it produces the type of Italian food that inspires visions of Tuscany: rustic, hefty in taste and portions, but laden with more flavor in one spoonful than some restaurants can ever hope to offer in a meal. Barolo skips Italian-American favorites like sandwiches, pizzas and spaghetti in favor of more exotic pastas. The bow-tie farfalle is combined with tomato sauce and spicy sausages or sprinkled with shrimp, garlic and olive oil. Screwdriver-like fusilli appears in the form of fusilli rustica: a bowl of pasta in which the sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant and bell peppers maintain their individual flavors while absorbing a stream of olive oil. Better is the tortellini brodo, a sumptuous chicken broth laden with cheese tortellini that simultaneously warms your innards and freshens your palate.

Even Barolo's take on more familiar dishes will impress in ways few local Italian restaurants do. The secret is in the sauces—complex, vibrant, thick, luxurious stunners. Here, the veal marsala is thinly sliced and slathered with a tart Marsala wine sauce. Gnocchi, often dense elsewhere, are as light as cotton balls on the tongue because of the tomato basil sauce. The sauce makes appearances on chicken, calamari, and all the pasta platters. But its best use is in the scampi, four giant shrimp, butterflied and cooked in a sauce of white wine and olive oil redolent of capers and garlic. Garlic bits pretty the dish but don't overpower it. Make sure to soak up any sauce with the house bread, among Orange County's best for Italian restaurants: crispy, fluffy, and soaked with enough butter to slick a pancake.

BAROLO CAFE, 13771 NEWPORT AVE., STE. 9, TUSTIN, (714) 734-8882.

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