Old Town Tustin isn’t having any of that faux vintage created by redevelopers eager to erase crumbly curbs and oddball storefronts. A venerable heart of a settlement born in 1927, the intersection of Main Street and El Camino Real remains a mishmash of small businesses run by locals.
Centro Storico is the new kid on the old block, re-animating a venue that was fallow far too long. While we were fixated on distance learning, the vintage building was transformed to house a spaghetteria and bar plus a back-pocket cafe. Open since August, Storico is another project from the owners of Centro, the excellent micro pizzeria next door. Both outlets serve beer and wine—craft brews under the Pozzuoli family’s Archaic brand are made in Tustin, and Pozzuoli Family Wines are made from grapes grown on their Paso Robles vineyard.
This family likes a challenge. Enter Storico, a full-service restaurant showcasing fresh pastas, made in-house daily. The county’s first spaghetteria showcases its custom pastas in a dozen dishes, all devoutly faithful to old-country traditions. The menu bookends those cherished pasta recipes with several antipasti, salads, meats, and vegetable sides. Packed with choices, the menu’s cluttered design slows decision making. Relax over a stiff Italian Manhattan or classic Negroni to aid your studies.
Calamari fritti and polenta e ragu are easily the best starters. Golden crunchy bites of squid are piping hot with a flavor that needs no more than a squirt of lemon, though a spicy fresh tomato sauce accompanies for dippers. I fell hard for gently fried squares of hearty polenta ready for dribbling with a chunky rich meat sauce said to be a family recipe. Texts of happiness from friends and family follow after taking this suggestion. An antipasto board of artisan cheeses and sliced meats gets extra points for using deli cuts from nearby Claro’s, the finest Italian deli in the galaxy—or at least in O.C.
Thoughtful salads, peppy and fresh, are constructed to order. Full and half sizes are a gracious, uncommon accommodation. My visits were far outside tomato season, so I avoided the caprese. But oh, that chopped salad. Even without the salame upgrade, the deep bowl of dark romaine, radicchio, crisp fennel, red onion, and earthy garbanzo beans all glossed in mellow vinaigrette is a standout. And though the Cesare checks the boxes for house croutons, aged Parmigiano, and anchovy, all required for a salad worth finishing, it will always be tough to bypass that chopped salad on future visits.
Fresh pasta made on-site daily is the beating heart of this family affair. Paterfamilias Enrico Pozzouli rules the pasta realm. It’s rare to find extruded pastas made fresh in a neighborhood restaurant. Bucatini (hollow straws), casarecce (twisted scrolls), and fusilli (spirals) are typically purchased in dried form. Of the eight pastas used in the Storico kitchen, only penne and farfalle are not housemade.
Like salads, pasta has both half- and full-size portions. Sauces are made to order in the pan and not prepared in advance. The long-simmered meat sauce is the sole exception. Pasta here is never swimming in sauce, in order to flaunt each shape’s particular character. Every pasta is cooked al dente, as soft, soggy pasta is intolerable in first-rate Italian cuisine.
Ultra-thick spaghetti has the heft and surface texture to carry an eggy carbonara sauce, flecked with bits of pancetta. Salsiccia stars mighty good sausage in a deep tomato sauce with fresh garlic, bold oregano, and a splash of cream—it’s a divine sauce for hollow rigatoni and its flavor-grabbing ridges.
Cacio e pepe, a dryish, lean sauce in its classic form, needs more pepper and salty hard cheese to stand hefty bucatini. Aglione, a rustic sauce of San Marzano tomatoes and fresh garlic, is a better partner for bucatini’s roly-poly structure. Capperi e olive recalls puttanesca sauce, with its fragrant mix of capers, olives, garlic, and vibrant tomatoes, but it’s the fresh, swirly casarecce pasta that makes this dish exceptional.
Considering the attention paid to pitch-perfect pasta, you might assume non pasta dishes hold no surprises. Much delight awaits in the secondi lineup of meaty entrees. Cotoletta alla Milanese is satisfying dish of chicken breast, pounded flat, dipped in egg, and dredged with Parmesan breadcrumbs before frying. Tender white meat doesn’t get any better than when it wears a crunchy, nutty overcoat. Or exchange frying for chicken roasted simply, with lemon and garlic. Tagliata for two is the undisputed winner in this category. Impeccably grilled with a dark toothy crust, this boneless, juicy 24-ounce porterhouse arrives hot, sliced, and ready to share. A mound of peppery arugula and wedges of lemon are traditional trimmings; a bottle of good olive oil can be requested for drizzling. It’s so delicious to find a swell steak outside of a steakhouse.
Desserts are made on-site and lack the trappings of purchased items. Housemade gelato or sorbetto is the best call—a four-flavor sampler is a bargain at $6.
Launching an artisan spaghetteria in the midst of this pandemic seems counterintuitive, but the Pozzuoli family fears not. Centro Storico and its cafe are a brave, timely bet on the future of quirky, remarkable Old Town Tustin.
405 El Camino Real,
5 BEST DISHES
Polenta e ragu
Casarecce capperi e olive
Grilled porterhouse for two
Starters, $8 to $18
Pasta, $10 to $21
Entrees, $16 to $48
Closed Monday. Centro Storico translates to historic center.