Richard Foss

Il canto Italiani [RESTAURANT REVIEW]

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Chef Aliaga’s in-house pastas and sausages and co-owner Lou Giovanetti voice make for magical meals

Primo Italia chef Michaelangelo Aliaga. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Primo Italia chef Michaelangelo Aliaga. Photo by Brad Jacobson

by Richard Foss

Almost every restaurant would like to be an “everyday “ place, somewhere you might go on a whim when nothing in the refrigerator calls to you. Not all can manage this, of course. Some have too high a price point or too formal an atmosphere, and others feature a cuisine so arcane or confrontational that you may appreciate it only occasionally.

The cuisine that is right there at the top when it comes to impulse dining is Italian. Think of how much money you’d have if you had one penny for every time anyone in the world said, “I don’t feel like cooking, let’s go out for pizza.” It’s comfort food even if you didn’t grow up with it, but restaurants still make a statement about whether they’re special occasion only with their decisions about ambiance and price point.

The new Primo Italia made an interesting decision in this regard. It looks like a high-ticket restaurant, complete with a bar full of exotic bottles and a grand piano in the corner. But just about every entree is below twenty bucks. We had a large party to celebrate a birthday, so had a chance to order an array of starters and entrees from across the spectrum.

The cooking by chef Michaelangelo Aliaga is authentic, rustic Italian with pastas and sausages made in-house. So among our starters, we selected grilled sausage with roasted bell peppers. I don’t usually order this because I can make it at home, but that fresh sausage makes a heap of difference. The texture is lighter, the garlic flavor fresher because it hasn’t oxidized over time, and it is in every way superior. The sausage had been grilled and sliced into eight thick coins rather than being sautéed with the peppers, so there were different flavors to savor.  

Our other starters were mussels in broth, grilled octopus, bruschetta, and an arcane pasta called testaroli with pesto sauce. Testaroli is rarely seen in restaurants because it is time-consuming to make. A thin batter is poured into a very hot pan, then another pan is put on top of it very briefly. The resulting pancake of pasta is then slashed into pieces and briefly boiled and the result has a slightly rubbery exterior and spongy crepe-like interior. If you expect standard pasta you may find this texture weird, but give it a chance -– it’s like nothing else and it grows on you. The pesto sauce was on the light side rather than a basil and garlic bomb, so you still taste the good olive oil and wheat flavor.  

The octopus was tasty but very misleadingly described. If you expect just the usual tentacles on a plate with a little garnish, you will think the wrong item was delivered. The octopus here is one element of a dish that includes potatoes, olives, and vegetables, served atop thick slices of red and green heirloom tomatoes. It’s a well composed salad of hot and cold vegetables with a fine balance of robust flavors, but people who would like it might not order it and some people who order it won’t like it. I could have enjoyed it as an entrée, because there were enough flavors that I could have just kept eating.

There was nothing conceptually unusual about the bruschetta, though the fact that they used housemade fresh bread elevated it a few notches. One slice was topped with tomato slices and herbs, the others with musky wild mushrooms and a garlicky artichoke heart mix. The mussels were also exactly what they were supposed to be, a healthy amount of shellfish in a broth that had some bell pepper and spice, with some more of that good grilled bread.    

Peach and burrata salad with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar at Primo Italia.

Peach and burrata salad with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar at Primo Italia.

We ordered two salads as an intermezzo, a fennel and orange with greens and red onion and a peach and burrata with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Crisp raw fennel is delightful in salads and the orange brought out the gentle anise-like sharpness. My only quibble is that I would have liked the fennel pieces a little thinner or smaller so it would be easier to get a mix of flavors. The peach and burrata salad was polarizing, with some people at our table liking it as it was and others wishing the balsamic had been on the side so they could have the exquisitely fresh, creamy cheese and fruit by themselves. While I was in the former camp I understand the sentiment.

During the brief wait between courses, we enjoyed music by the very good pianist, who was joined on Broadway standards by crooning co-owner Lou Giovanetti. Lou is a constant presence and table-hops to say hello to friends and be sure the service is working, and though his singing is superb not all staff members have their act together, yet. At both our table and a neighboring booth silverware was cleared with one course and not brought with the next one, and the timing on refilling waters and other details was not well synchronized. It’s a new operation so things will probably smooth out soon, but for now there is room for improvement.   

For entrees, we ordered lasagna, spaghetti carbonara, pappardelle with wild boar, and veal saltimbocca

Veal Saltimbocca "jumps in your mouth" at Primo Italia. Photo by Richard Foss

Veal Saltimbocca “jumps in your mouth” at Primo Italia. Photo by Richard Foss

with sage. Saltimbocca is Italian for “jump in your mouth,” one of the most poetic food names ever, and this dish delivered. It’s simple, thinly sliced meat rolled around sage leaves, wrapped with prosciutto, fried and topped with white wine sauce, but when done right the salty meats, lemon, and herb is superb. It was served with mashed potatoes and broccolini, and despite my early fears about petite entrees it was a fine full meal.

The three pastas all hit the spot, too.The lasagna was a particularly big hit with everyone who tried it. It’s not the usual heavy, starchy brick of carbs drenched in sauce. The noodles are thin and the delicate béchamel sauce and cheese are used moderately. Let your expectations go and enjoy this, because it’s a winner.

This brings me to the only place where Primo Italia is out of balance: the wine list. All the pastas we ordered were under $20, and the saltimbocca is one of the most expensive items at $28, which makes it odd that the wine list has no bottles under $38 and escalates steadily from there. Those bottles are superb quality, but there are some very good Italian, Argentine, and Californian wines that would go well with this food and could be sold for less. If Primo Italia aspires to be an everyday joy, they might want to add a few more modest bottles to the list.

We had filled up on our appetizers and mains but had to try some desserts around the table in honor of the birthday. So tried the tiramisu, cannoli, bread pudding, and cheesecake. All were good but the cheesecake was the standout, made with a rich and flavorful cheese rather than the usual bland stuff. The topping of sliced, toasted almonds and strawberry sauce with fresh berries made this a must-try item, and whetted my appetite to sample more.

So is Primo Italia the restaurant that you can stop into on a whim? It’s still a work in progress, but the outline is clear. They deliver high end food at medium prices in a classy environment. You wouldn’t feel right there in shorts and a T-shirt (though I presume they’d serve you), but if you want to treat yourself just a bit, it’s worth the drive to Hillside Village.

Primo Italia is at 24590 Hawthorne Boulevard in Torrance. Open daily 5 p.m., close 10 p.m. Mon-Thu, midnight Fr-Su. Full bar, parking in lot, some vegetarian items. Food menu at eatprimo.com, phone 310-378-4288.

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