UPDATE: Rustica has closed since this review appeared last November. Its owners have opened Great Maple in its place, calling the new restaurant “a simple declaration of appreciation for seasonal produce, responsible seafood, farm fresh meats and quality libations.”
Dust off your ducati and brush up on your Barolos-Italian fare is on the menu at a new restaurant near you. Six suave Italians have joined the scene in as many months, with more opening soon. So we’re doubling up this month with a dual report on Fashion Island hot spot Rustica, and Disney zone sleeper TusCa.
Other than their youth-both opened late last spring-and their Italian lineage, the two bear little resemblance. Rustica, with its glam address, Las Vegas chef, and coastal crowd, is a buzz engine attracting steady traffic from ardent shoppers and avid diners. A reservation is no help on a late-summer evening; our foursome waits more than 30 minutes and the tiny bar is too jammed to turn out timely cocktails and too packed for us to find a place to drink.
Once we land a granite-top table on the covered patio overlooking the courtyard and fountain, we plead for a round of cocktails and order the calamari. Every seat is full and Saturday night verve abounds. Our drinks are still MIA when a small bowl of delicate squid, fried in seasoned rice-flour, arrives. The frazzled young waiter explains the bar is overwhelmed. No kidding. Drinks finally arrive as we share the seared ahi niçoise, an entree salad, and await our 5-pound roasted chicken, one of two family-style offerings. In the salad, deep ruby slices of tuna are cut and cooked with precision, but have little flavor. A smattering of fingerling potatoes, shreds of fresh green beans, a few olives, and half a hard-boiled egg add scant gusto to the large bowl of underdressed greens. The effect is stingy and unsatisfying.
Then the fat, bronzed bird is presented, exuding a savory, roasted aroma that turns heads, provoking envious moans from diners nearby. After a trip back to the kitchen for carving, the moist, crispy-skinned poultry returns with a bowl of reduced jus and two sides-pencil-thin baby carrots, and fried chunks of skins-on spuds. Both are so meagerly portioned and austere, they dishonor the fine organic hen.
Another night, we sample more of chef-operator Grant MacPherson’s concise menu, a roster of familiar dishes that rely on execution, not novelty, to impress. And some do. Kobe carpaccio tastes fresh and fatty rich, set off nicely with a lively parsley emulsion. A request by our seafood-averse guest to substitute Bolognese sauce for Manila clams on the fresh pappardelle is a lucky call-the complex, chunky meat sauce is easy to like. Sweet day-boat scallops have a perfect sear, gaining even more richness from creamed spinach and a drizzle of bacon gastrique. A four-cheese flatbread with a crackerlike crust is unremarkable, but the artisan cheese trio (billed only as cow, goat, and sheep) is attractively plated with sweet tomato-and-red onion jam. Our obliging server is so unfamiliar with the menu that his frequent trips to the kitchen for answers make us feel awkward for asking the most basic questions.
Dessert is a welcome breather and culinary bright spot. The rustic blueberry tart is packed with juicy, bright fruit over a flaky, tender pie crust good enough to eat on its own. Cloud-light cheesecake cubes are flecked with orange rind, thickly coated in milk chocolate, and served on sticklike debonair lollipops-the pretty raspberry syrup is more eye candy on a white plate than a useful flavor player.
Many miles inland, the scene is notably more subdued at the stylish but lonely TusCa in the atrium lobby of the newly renovated Hyatt Regency Orange County, just a mile from Disneyland. Typically, restaurants in nonluxury chain hotels are stunningly unremarkable. What lures me to this Cal-Ital newbie are unexpected features such as a brick-lined pizza oven, artisan antipasto platters, and Italy-educated chef de cuisine Laura De Martin.
As I look around the hip, handsome space, I can’t recall what mundane canteen predates TusCa, and you probably can’t either. But the striking interior, with its soaring sailcloth canopies, cascades of lighted glass bubbles, and communal green-marble tables makes a memorable first impression. Staffers offer a ready welcome and cheerfully point out various seating options. With so few diners, any preference easily is accommodated.
An antipasto order sheet lays out the day’s meat, cheese, and vegetable selections, making it easy to design a custom platter. Minutes later, we’re all noshing on commendable Prosciutto di Parma, finocchiona (fennel salami), pecorino toscano, burrata, caponata (sweet-sour eggplant relish), and assorted Italian olives. Even better, each selection includes worthy complements such as mostarda (Italian chutney), cornichons, and local honey. What a pleasing way to start a meal.
Starters-notably light on salads-are quite traditional. Bits of rich prosciutto add pizazz to fresh clams with garlic wine sauce. Peppery local arugula with olive oil offsets the salty bresaola (air-dried beef). Thin-crust pizzas from the blazing brick oven are satisfying, even if the dough lacks the complexity some pizza snobs demand.
Winning entrees come from sea and land. Seared fresh halibut is a superstar piece of fish that gets vibrant backing from thyme, fennel, and orange salad. Pappardelle with short-rib Bolognese ragu is dense with flavors-and a steal at $14. My big, boneless pork chop with sweet-sour stewed vegetables and roasted lemon suffers from overcooking; I gladly would order the pork again, but with less time on the fire. One night’s risotto special-spinach and chicken-is better than most, tasting fresh and not gummy. Health benefits aside, the whole-wheat pasta and wild mushrooms is a chewy, unappealing bowl of ingredients that dearly needs some current of flavor to pull it together.
For a refined dessert, order the affogato-hot fresh espresso poured over dense vanilla gelato. It may sound plain, but it’s a spellbinding explosion of cold and scalding, sweet and bitter, creamy and earthy. Excellent espresso and gelato are the key. It’s the best $5 hotel dessert around, and probably the only one. Of course wine prices exhibit huge markups (as they also do at Rustica), but it’s nice we’re given the option of wine by the carafe. Just $16 buys a three-quarter quartino-three glasses-of perfectly quaffable pinot grigio or chianti, both from Italy’s Veneto region. Sharing is encouraged.
Who knows how this tale of two trattorias will end? Rustica isn’t as urbane or deluxe as its prices imply. TusCa has more charm and promise than its location would suggest. Both are so new to the party that anything can happen. As the Italians say: “Se sono rose, fioriranno”-time will tell.
Kobe carpaccio, calamari, whole chicken, scallops, pappardelle Bolognese, blueberry pie, orange cheesecake.
Regular dinner prices, $8 to $33; family meals that serve four, $65 to $120.
Any seat on the patio.
1133 Newport Center Drive
Antipasto selections, mushroom pizza, seared halibut, spinach risotto, pork chop agro dolce, prosciutto panini, affogato.
Lunch, $6 to $14; dinner $6 to $24.
Communal tables for a group; booths on the east side for intimacy.
Disney Effect: Kids younger than 12 eat free from the child’s menu, with each paying adult.
11999 Harbor Blvd.
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
Food Stylist Peilin Chen Breller
This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.