Richard Foss

RESTAURANT REVIEW – Bettolino Kitchen

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Julie Marcelletta with a betto box lunch. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com).

Julie Marcelletta with a betto box lunch. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com).

Bettolino Kitchen: Modern times from old Italian family

Italians have an whole vocabulary for places where you can buy a meal, depending of the level of formality, culinary specialty, and style of decor. They know the difference between a ristorante, trattoria, cucina, osteria, enoteca, bari, and locanda, plus a variety of regional terms with more subtle shades of meaning.

I have just learned another term at Redondo’s Bettolino Kitchen. A bettolino is an archaic term for a country inn, or sometimes military or workers’ canteen. But the smart interior here suggests tech workers rather than servants of industry.

Given its heritage — the family opened Giuliano’s Deli in the 1950s and Gaetano’s in the 1990’s — the menu is a surprise. Those restaurants are best known for simple, classic southern Italian dishes. Here Chef Fabio Ugoletti offers exciting, modern ideas. Fresh ingredients are front and center, pastas are freshly made, and the presentations are sometimes startling. Tuna tartare is topped with thin slices of toasted bread poised like a ship’s sails, with a crown of delicate sprouts like seagrass. And yes, raw tuna is an Italian tradition, using flavored oils and raw vegetables where the Japanese would use soy and ponzu.

Calamari is a ubiquitous starter, but Chef Ugoletti doesn’t break out the seasoned breadcrumbs and marinara. Instead he sautés it with shallots and Brussels sprout leaves and uses it to top grilled polenta with a delicate garlic sauce. It is a beautiful presentation and was one of the highlights of our meal. Experimentation here is not a mania – a beet caprese salad was faithful to the classic idea of highlighting fresh products, the seasonal vegetables and cheese accented with a drizzle of pesto. Now that summer is here they might switch to using heirloom tomatoes, but if the beet version is offered when you visit, try it.

I was impressed by the variety of sauces and preparations among main courses. It wasn’t until I started to write this review that I realized there is only one dish on the menu that has a standard Italian red sauce. It was eggplant parmesan. We ordered it just to have a baseline for comparison. We also requested pork-stuffed chicken breast, artichoke and mushroom stuffed tortellini, duck breast over risotto, and cocoa-infused linguine with lamb ragu, mushrooms, and parmesan sauce. Even with that many dishes we had to make compromises. I had wanted to try the oxtail-stuffed pasta or pistachio-crusted halibut and dithered until the last minute.

As we passed nibbles to each other, a consensus emerged that the duck was a favorite at our table, partly because the risotto underneath it had a luscious, creamy richness. There was a four-way tie for second. Every item had well-considered flavors and expert preparation. The cocoa-infused pasta, which I had thought might be a mere novelty, was delicious with the lamb ragu and parmesan sauce. The hint of chocolate flavor added a balance, a bit like a mild Mexican mole sauce. We wiped the plate dry with bread.

The chicken stuffed with pork was a bit mild for my palate. I think a bit more herbs and pepper in the pork would have made it more interesting, but my companions liked it just as it was. The two simple items, the eggplant parmesan and artichoke and mushroom ravioli, showed that this kitchen can turn out the classics with style.

Bettolino Kitchen betto boxes. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com).

Bettolino Kitchen betto boxes. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com).

Bettolino Kitchen has a very decent by-the-glass wine list and our server Marcus was generous with samples. Their beer list is unusually good and includes oddities like an Icelandic lager and there are freshly made non-alcoholic sodas for those who like them.

It was hard to decide what to have for dessert, but we managed to settle on a raspberry crostata and ricotta cheesecake. Our server surprised us by also bringing a whipped mascarpone and meringue item with fresh strawberries and cocoa sauce, which I had considered but expected to be too sweet. It wasn’t. The cocoa balanced things nicely and it was light and delicious. The cheesecake was one of the rare ones where one could really taste cheese, in this case modified by orange mint sauce and the almond biscuit crust. The crostata was less flashy, a perfect little berry pastry surrounded by crème anglaise and fresh berries, and as well made as everything else.

Dinner ran less than $50 per person, including beverages, remarkable for this level of cooking, so my wife and I decided to return for weekend brunch. (The menu is the same as their midweek lunch, with one exception that I’ll get to in a moment.)

We decided to order a grilled peach and chicken salad and a “betto box” – a selection of four small items chosen by the chef. During the week these are a soup, salad, main course, and side, but on weekends they are “brunch themed.” That day it was a coffee-infused pancake, stuffed tomato with turkey, tuna tartare and avocado salad, and an egg Florentine with prosciutto. We ordered two of the soft drinks, a raspberry-basil and pear-ginger, both of which were cool and refreshing and went amazingly well with our food. Our server mentioned that they will soon be serving cocktails, so hard versions of these may also be offered.

The salad had pieces of grilled peach, chicken and avocado over a mix of greens that included both fresh and pickled radish. It was a very successful flavor combination. The radish added gentle spiciness and sharpness to the fruit and herbed chicken and it reminded me of the flavors of a summer picnic.

As for the betto box, the coffee pancake was a nice novelty, the tuna and avocado salad with sprouts and arugula a nice take on a classic salad. The small stuffed tomato had flavors that went nicely with the turkey and bed of asparagus, but I think they might want to rethink the presentation. It was served in a small, square bowl and was difficult to cut without tossing pieces on the table. That was also the problem with the last item on this plate. The egg was served with a big piece of prosciutto in a slippery hollandaise, making it an expert-level task to cut with the butter knife. If the prosciutto had been cut or briefly crisped things would have been just as tasty and rather less trouble. The bill was only about $20 with drinks, and improved our attitude, as a good brunch should.

Bettolino Kitchen is the latest of several Italian restaurants to open in the area and the fact that they have gotten so good so soon is remarkable. This is a restaurant for anyone who delights in fresh flavors and modern preparations with deep cultural roots. It shows that when a family of traditionalists puts their mind to it they can create a modern masterpiece.

Bettolino Kitchen is at 211 Palos Verdes Boulevard in Redondo Beach. Open daily at 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sun-Thu and 10 p.m. Fri-Sat. Parking lot, wheelchair access good, vegetarian/vegan options, $18 corkage. Menu at bettolinokitchen.com, phone (310) 375-0500.

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