A tavola non si invecchia.
Translation: At the table with good friends and family you do not become old.
~ Italian Proverb
While this timeless Italian dictum which our friend Sandy Driscoll shared with us resounds with sagacity, a little editing might make it even more accurate for Americans. Perhaps the proverb should read “At the table with good friends and family, you do not become thin.” That’s especially true if you’re eating at American Italian restaurants whose profligate portions also ring true with the aphorism “the trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again.”
In Italy you won’t find the stereotypically large, rich meals served in Italian restaurants throughout the fruited plain. Instead, portion sizes are reasonable and strike a healthy balance from among the food groups. In Italy, meals are an unrushed social and familial event in which portions are “right-sized” and few sweets are served. That’s why Italians rank statistically among the world’s slimmest people, with a mere ten percent of the population in the obese range (compared to more than a third of the American population).
Focus on the “family” part of the proverb and there are few restaurants that excel. Each year Urbanspoon recognizes restaurants across the fruited plain where dining is a family affair. Urbanspoon’s list of the most popular family-friendly restaurants received the most positive reviews from professional food critics, bloggers and the Urbanspoon community of diners. Only two Duke City restaurants–Anatolia Doner Kebab House and Paddy Rawal’s Fine Indian Dining made the list.
When we vacation outside of New Mexico, Kim and I try to have as many meals as possible at restaurants which accommodate an all-too-often overlooked member of the family. After all, our four-legged children Tim and Callie like it most when the entire family dines together. One restaurant in La Jolla, California which made Urbanspoon’s list of America’s 100 most family friendly restaurants and which is pet-friendly is Piatti Ristorante and Bar. Consistently rated among the San Diego area’s five best Italian restaurants, it was a no brainer that we would visit Piatti with our furry canine children.
Piatti is located in the La Jolla Shores area, a haven for fine dining and fine shopping. From the exterior, the restaurant resembles a converted old house. We only saw the main dining room while ferrying our delightful dachshunds to the outdoor patio, but the terms “close quarters” and “cozy” came to mind. The ambiance at the patio is distinctly Italian. Its cynosure is a towering, thick ficus tree in the patio’s center with branches that provide shade. Tables surround the tree in a concentric pattern. A burbling fountain, a wall which provides privacy and lots of brick complete the atmosphere.
One more thing to note about Piatti (and I’m sure to catch some flack over this)–it’s a (gasp) chain, a highly successful one at that. With a dozen locations in four states (California, Washington, Texas and Colorado), it’s a concept we like a lot in that it’s a departure from the stereotypical Italian chain and its effusive, over-the-top ambiance and pretentious, saccarine service. Piatti looks and feels like a very good mom-and-pop restaurant. Its mission statement is simple and unpretentious, too: provide great food in comfortable surroundings. If our inaugural visit is any indication, it’s mission accomplished, but that mission statement should mention something about service. Our server, a San Diego born and bred gentleman named Matthew with a distinctive Hawaiian accent provided some of the very best service we’ve had in many months.
The sections of the menu are titled like many Italian restaurant menus: antipasti, insalata, pizza, panini, pasta and secondi, but an old-fashioned red sauce restaurant this is not. Featured fare is of the Northern Italian genre with great sophistication to be found in many dishes. Menu items aren’t as much described as are their components listed. An entree, for example, might read as: tortigloni pasta, broccoli, shallots, toasted garlic, tart sweet cherries, Parmigiano Reggiano. Your server can provide more detail if you need it.
Shortly after seating, a basket of bread will arrive at your table with a dipping oil accompaniment. The bread’s hard-crusted exterior gives way to a soft center which is perfect for dredging up some of the very best dip we’ve encountered in our dining adventures. You won’t want to miss a morsel. The dip is created from aged Balsamic vinegar (which is not cloying as store-bought “Balsamic” tends to be), pure olive oil, finely minced garlic (and lots of it), basil and red pepper flakes which bring punch to the dip. Over the years this dip has become so popular that Piatti bottles and sells it for home use. It is simply magnificent!
The surprisingly sophisticated Antipasti menu includes some heretofore not seen as starter items such as fresh veal sweetbreads, an unctuous delicacy whose enthusiasm my Kim doesn’t share. We “settled” instead on a melange of fresh ingredients: watermelon, mint, mozzarella and prosciutto with olive oil. The key to maximizing your enjoyment of this refreshing delight is to include a bit of each flavor component in each bite. Considering the prosciutto is whisper thin, but resilient, it’s a bit of a chore, but well worth the effort. Every ingredient is excellent on its own; together they sing.
The special of the day was risotto, the very mention of which sends my heart aflutter. In my life I can count on about six fingers all the outstanding risotto dishes I’ve had. Sometimes years transpire before another transformative risotto crosses my lips. In fact, before Piatti, the last wondrous risotto I had was nearly two years prior at Il Mulino in Las Vegas. “What’s so special about risotto,” you ask? “Isn’t it just another rice dish?” What makes risotto special is that preparing it is a labor of love. It requires meticulous care.
At Piatti, the risotto is an obvious byproduct of careful monitoring and meticulous attention. It is simply outstanding, one of the very best we’ve ever had. A basic risotto requires a round, short grain, high starch rice. It’s a blank canvas for a wide variety of flavors: seafood, poultry, mushrooms, meat, vegetables, nuts and even fruit. Piatti’s risotto was made with asparagus, creamy gorgonzola sauce and grilled chicken. Each morsel was thoroughly enjoyable, each bite cherished.
The best entree on the menu according to Matthew, our ambassadorial server, is the penne pasta dish with braised lamb, red wine, tomato sauce, Grana Padana (a grainy Italian cheese made into a very rich sauce) and fresh mint. Though not quite as good as the risotto, it truly is an excellent entree. The pasta is perfectly prepared at just a hint above al dente. The braised lamb is as tender, flavorful and plentiful as we’ve had while the sauce is luxurious and rich. It’s a dish we’d have over and over again.
Though served with another entree, our server accommodated our request for roasted corn. It’s been a while, perhaps since we lived in England, since we’ve had good roasted corn. The best I’ve ever had, of course, was the corn we raised on our farm in Peñasco and roasted ourselves. Piatti’s roasted corn reminded me very much of that corn. A perfectly roasted ear of corn retains just a hint of smokiness. Each niblet should be intact and it should share both sweet and savory qualities. This roasted corn had all of that.
Though it lists only eight items, the dessert menu is no slouch either. As a newly re-minted (courtesy of Cafe Bella) coffee aficionado, my choice was simple: Affogato, white chocolate gelato, espresso, amaretto, shaved chocolate and whipped cream. Served in a sunda-like goblet, the gelato is topped with whipped cream and shaved chocolate. You then ladle on as much of the amaretto and espresso as you’d like. For the strongest coffee flavor, you’ll want to empty the contents of the hot liqueur onto the goblet, but that will only melt the gelato more quickly. Instead, apply the liqueur judiciously so the gelato remains cold and intact.
Piatto is so popular that reservations are recommended. It’s got the type of family friendly ambiance and service that if it was in your neighborhood, it would become a frequent hangout. With terrific food, service and atmosphere, it’s a chain even I can love.
Piatti Ristorante & Bar
2182 Avenida De La Playa
La Jolla, California
LATEST VISIT: 1 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET:Affogato, Roasted Corn, Penne Pasta with Braised Lamb, Risotto, Bread,