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The handmade pasta

Phoenix Rising

by Jamie Gwen | Photo: Andrea Bricco | Modern Luxury Orange County magazine | April 2, 2013

O.C.’s much-loved Prego Ristorante is back from the ashes—quite literally. The landmark Italian eatery for two decades welcomed the business-lunch and neighborhood-dinner crowds to experience authentic Roman-style pizza from a wood-burning oven, handmade pastas, spit-roasted meats and entirely homemade desserts—until a roof fire temporarily closed it down. Five months later, it’s reopened, and it’s once again landed a spot on my restaurant radar. And with very few great Italian dining establishments in our backyard, my palate was delightfully pleased during my recent visits to the Irvine spot. Yes, the food is still deliciously handcrafted, but the ambience has now risen to meet it. It’s had a bit of a makeover and features a splash of soft-hued color, a glassed-in patio and copper accents. And the exhibition kitchen is my favorite part. I suggest walking slowly past the chefs as you are escorted to your table… you might learn something.

On both my lunch and dinner outings, the service is attentive and the food is a beautiful balance of authentic and innovative. Partner and Executive Chef Ugo Allesina was born and raised in Piedmont, Italy, and his cuisine has a German influence from his time spent working in fine hotels around the world. His dedication to fresh, full-flavored food is evident in the menu, and the wine list highlights the best of Italy and California—the perfect pairing to his honest, thoughtfully prepared dishes.

The first item to arrive at the table when I dine with friends for lunch (and dinner) is a basket of focaccia, laden with the aroma and essence of garlic. It’s paired with a bright arrabiata sauce, and it’s the perfect foil for the rich bread. (Quick, take it away, or I’ll eat the whole basket!) A glass of 2009 ripasso from the Veneto region appears while I peruse the menu, and I’m almost transported to the little trattoria in Venice that I remember so fondly.

I order the burrata (I never turn down good cheese), and I love a chopped salad, so I select that, as well. The ricotta-filled buffalo mozzarella known as burrata—or food from the gods—is so fresh, creamy and properly dried of its soaking liquid that a hush comes over the table as we dig in. Fresh oregano adorns the plate, and thinly sliced, well-seasoned tomatoes are a flavorful complement to the ball of cheese—as is the vibrant pesto. There’s not much of it, but it’s so good that I ask for more. You should, too. You’ll find that the burrata is delicious with the herbaceous spread, and the focaccia will be happy to bathe in the residual sauce. The salad also is scrumptious, with finely chopped romaine, carrots, bell peppers, celery and mushrooms, all combined and tossed in a lemony vinaigrette. The only ingredient lacking is a sprinkling of the 24-month aged Parmigiano-Reggiano that the chef prides himself on using. Once added, I’m in heaven.

We move on to the calamari fritti. These golden, tender tentacles are fried in clean oil, and they’re crave-worthy. And then there’s the bruschetta. It has that Old World charm and New World flavor that make it hard to resist. Toasted Tuscan bread with tomatoes, mozzarella and prosciutto di Parma. (Have I made you hungry yet?)

Don’t miss the Napoli-style thin-crust pizzas, aromatic from the wood-burning oven and bubbling with goodness. We devour a pizza quattro formaggi, with fontina, Parmesan and mozzarella, and a hint of Gorgonzola. The crust’s underside is blistered and brown, like any good Italian chef will say it should be, and the mix of cheeses is pizza-pie perfection. Another glass of Italian red wine, and I would’ve been happy to stop here.

But no, I eat for you! So we select a couple of bowls of handmade pasta. My favorite is the gnocchi cibreo, pillowy potato dumplings drenched in a creamy roasted garlic cheese sauce with chicken, pancetta and shredded radicchio. The sauce is outrageously bold with flavor, the pancetta adds a salty hue, and the radicchio cuts through it all with a pleasantly bitter bite. My only critique: The chicken could have been cut slightly smaller to blend better into the sauce and bathe the gnocchi. I love the scaloppine al marsala. It’s a traditional Italian dish you cook for a crowd (or a date) because it’s sure to impress—and Allesina’s does. It’s rustic, Roman-style comfort food with class, and it puts me over the top.

Then the dessert cart rolls by. Now, I seldom turn down a dessert, and I can’t resist tiramisu or cheesecake, particularly when I’m told they’re housemade. Impressive. The tiramisu is honorably prepared in the Italian style, slightly soaked but not too wet or sweet. A must-have. So is the raspberry white chocolate cheesecake—which I finish—paired with a robust yet smooth espresso macchiato. The food coma sets in, but it’s worth it.

With its attention to quality fare and traditions, and its new look—along with a wonderful happy hour menu and private dining areas for your next festa—it’s safe to say this iconic Italian restaurant is flying high once again. Welcome home, Prego. Welcome home.

Prego Ristorante
18420 Von Karman Ave.

Mon.-Sat.: 11am-10pm
Sun.: 11am-9pm

Appetizers: $7-$15
Pasta: $14-$21
Mains: $25-$32
Desserts: $7

Who Goes There
The biz crowd and Italian food aficionados

You Must Order…
The pizzas, the burrata and the gnocchi

You Simply Must Beg for…
The pesto

Best Table in the House
In a corner booth or the glassed-in patio