Saturday, August 27, 2016

Another Lively Meal at Brio

Brio Tuscan Grille
774 Spectrum Center Drive
Irvine, CA 92618

I love when restaurants try to keep things fresh by changing up their menus every so often. It's a delicate balancing act to achieve though. You often risk alienating your loyal customer base that might have loved an item that has been taken off the menu to make way for the latest thing a restaurant is trying. I have not heard any complaints about this happening at Brio, so that must mean that guests are really enjoying the new Moderno menu that launched earlier this summer.

This new menu at Brio features 13 new entrees, some tantalizing appetizers, which encourage sharing, and a new beverage program that features some stunning wine offerings, along with inspired cocktails, and craft beer options. Yes, guests favorites are still available here, but there are many more low calorie and gluten free options available, and guests are encouraged to customize plates to their discriminating tastes. Of course, low cal and gluten free don't apply to me, but I was intrigued to see all that's new at Brio, so when we were invited to try our their menu, we were all in.

Brio was founded in 1992 and has blossomed to more than 100 restaurant locations. Brio means, 'full of life," in Italian, and goes hand in hand with their credo, which is, "to eat well, is to live well." That's definitely something I can get behind. Opened just over two years ago, this Irvine Spectrum Center location is one of two in all of California and has become a favorite with shoppers who crave Italian fare at this huge shopping complex.

We got to Brio at just before 6 pm on recent Monday evening, and were a little surprised to see this restaurant and the bar area packed with people enjoying their meals, but the prime real estate here is on their wrap around patio, which has a great view of shoppers going to and from their cars, and has comfy patio furniture. It really sets up the vacation vibe. We decided to sit inside, to soak up their self-proclaimed, "upscale casual," atmosphere. We quickly made our selections and waited for our meals. Here's how everything came out for us.

Every meal at Brio starts with a bread basket, and I could have gone through a good number of these if I hadn't had a good amount of food coming my way. I was partial to the sourdough loaf, which came out warm, with softened butter. Katie enjoyed the crisp, herbed triangles of crackers more than the loaf, so it was a win for both of us.

Usually, when we dine at Brio, we always start with their bruschetta sampler, which is a great way to try their three offerings, but on this visit we had to give the Chef's Seasonal Bruschetta ($11.95) a try. This season the bruschetta was pretty traditional, with diced tomatoes, a creamy burrata, a drizzle of vinegar, a few sprigs of basil, all piled on crunchy toast points. I'm not really too excited by tomatoes, but I loved the freshness here, and they went well with the very well done burrata. Kind of like a Caprese salad on a toast point.

Talk about comfort food, look no further than this Balsamic Braised Short Rib ($22.95). This was as comforting as your mom's hug goodbye on the first day of school. This short rib had a wonderful sauce served with it, and was so tender, that just by picking up your fork, it almost shredded apart by itself. It kept the pot roast feel going with some sliced carrots and butter basted wild mushrooms. This dish was finished with a cauliflower puree, which Katie could not get enough of. It had a pleasing texture, and I presumed it was more healthy than regular mashed potatoes.

I've made it my goal to order more lamb when out to eat and made good on my promise to myself by ordering these Double Cut Lamb Chops ($29.95). These lamb chops were New Zealand raised and had tons of meat on them. I was a little worried that five lamb chops were not going to fill me up, but I was totally satisfied with these nicely seasoned chops that are part of the new Tuscan Grille portion of the menu at Brio. The Grille selections also include your choice of a side item, and they all sounded great, but after some debate between the creamed spinach and the Maple Balsamic Brussels Sprouts, I had to go with the sprouts. They won me over with the inclusion of a good amount of bacon, pecans, and Reggiano cheese. I really enjoyed this side item, which had a lot going on with it. There was a touch of sweetness from the maple glaze coating the sprouts, the smokey tinge of bacon, the crunch of the pecans, and the cheese, which brought this all together. This was even good the next day when I mixed it with a little of Katie's short rib, and had it for lunch, to the envy of all my coworkers.

Of course, I was pretty full by this point, but Brio offers petite favorite desserts, which are perfect for one person that wants to finish their meal with something sweet. I went with a classic, the Creme Brulee ($3.75). This had the traditional crunchy sugar coating topping this, and the sweet, custard-like bottom, which was silky smooth. A very nice end to my meal on this evening.

This was a completely satisfying meal this evening at Brio. All of these new items are a welcome addition to their already wonderful menu. I look forward to coming back again and maybe trying their pork chops or ribeye on subsequent visits. As per the trend when eating here, the service was professional, yet friendly. Our server was knowledgeable about the restaurant and fielded all of our questions effortlessly. Like I said before, there's always something new happening at Brio, and we can't wait to see what they come up with next.

For more information about Brio Tuscan Grille, head to their website here:

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Acquiring A Taste for Authentic Italian at Angelina's

Angelina's Pizzeria Napoletana
8573 Irvine Center Dr. 
Irvine, CA 92618

I think I've written this before, but going out with fellow food bloggers is kind of tough. We all have our list of restaurants that we want to try, and we almost fight for who will pick the restaurant we end up eating at. This is what happened when we went out with our friends Tom, of the wildly popular Tom's Foodie Blog, and Daniele of Dani's Decadent Deals. They asked for a list of places I wanted to go to, and then Daniele picked her own place, which just so happened to be Angelina's Pizzeria.

I must admit that I had never heard of this restaurant before. After Daniele told me where we would be eating, I did a little research and was surprised that I had not heard of Angelina's before. They have been open in Dana Point for close to four years now, but they really started to get a lot of press when they opened up this new Irvine location, which is in the new Los Olivos Marketplace, just across the freeway from the Irvine Spectrum.

This new location of Angelina's has been open since April and received a glowing review from one of the most trusted restaurant reviewers in OC, Edwin Goei, from the OC Weekly. He really raved about this place, so I was put a little more at ease by Daniele's selection on this evening. Along with Edwin's glowing review, Angelina's has also been mentioned numerous times in Modern Luxury Magazine, Orange Coast Magazine, and even a review by the Gossiping Gourmet in the Huntington Beach Independent.

Angelina's is run by a pair of Italian guys. Chef Sandro Nardone formerly of the Naples area heads the kitchen, while Antonio Bevacqua is the Chief Operating Officer, and he hails from Tuscany. Professionally he spent time at Il Fornaio, along with a stint with the Patina Restaurant Group. There Yelp reviews are littered with words like, "authentic", and "real deal Italian." I must admit, I'm more partial to American style pizza, with lots of cheese and toppings, but I'm always game to try a new restaurant.

We arrived here at just before 8 pm on a recent Saturday evening and were met with about a fifteen-minute wait. Luckily, Tom and Daniele got here before us and had put our name on the list. They wanted to sit outside on the front patio, due to Daniele feeling a little queasy. She would eventually spend our whole meal out in the car, and the result was one of the better times we have spent with this fantastic couple. I'm kidding of course, (or am I?).

With Daniele out of the picture, we quickly made our picks off the menu at Angelina's. The menu, as you would expect is pizza driven, with them divided by no sauce pizzas and red ones. There are a good number of starters and salads to choose from, but less in the way of pasta dishes and main courses. I imagine that most people come here for the pizzas, so let's see what we thought of our time at Angelina's.

I've been on a real meatball kick lately, so I figured that I'd give this Polpette Al Sugo ($16) a try to start things out. I'm really glad I did. Three meatballs were bathed in San Marzano tomato sauce, and topped with a little bit of burrata and basil. These were very tender and full of flavor. Their sauce was to die for, and the only thing to make this even better would be if they added more of that very good burrata. One of the better meatball dishes I have had, and it made me wish they had a meatball sandwich on their menu.

Tom selected this Polipo and Shrimp Salad ($18), which was a special on this evening to start with. This salad is not on their online menu, but judging by the amount of pictures of this on Yelp, it seems to be available rather regularly. For those of you that don't know, like me, polipo is Italian for octopus. So this was basically a seafood salad, which also featured a good amount of tomatoes, red onion, and arugula. Tom loved this salad, and would totally get it again. He thought the octopus was done nicely, and the shrimp was delectable.

As if we did not have enough food before our entrees came out, Katie wanted to try this Melanzane Alla Parmigiana ($13). She was very happy she did. Even as I write this, a month after the fact, she can't stop raving about this square portion of eggplant drenched in Pomodoro sauce and topped with a fresh sprig of locally grown basil. She described this as an eggplant lasagna, without the guilty feeling of having noodles. She tossed around words like, "fantastic", "flavorful", and "hearty, without being heavy." She could not see herself coming to Angelina's, and not having this starter.

Since we're talking about Katie's food, we might as well talk about her meal also, which was a special on this evening, the Filetto ($40). This filet was delicious, even though she ordered it medium well. It was topped with a Gorgonzola sauce, which boosted the flavor profile of the usually tender, but sacrificing flavor filet. The filet was sandwiched between roasted potatoes and a side of spinach, which Katie felt both were kind of unremarkable.

Both Tom and I opted for pizzas, and we'll take a look at his Margherita DOC ($18) first. There are two versions of a Margherita pizza on Angelina's menu, and I finally learned the difference between the two. One uses cow's milk to make the mozzarella, and the other, the one that is above, is made with buffalo milk mozzarella. See, even after doing this for seven years, there is still so much for me to learn. Tom must have enjoyed this pizza, as he tore this up, or was he just trying to eat fast to get back to his wonderful wife, who was sawing logs in the car?

As I stated before, I'm usually not a big fan of this authentic, Napoletana style pizza, but I gave it another shot at Angelina's on this evening. I was torn between two, and with a little help for our waitress, I settled on the Saporita ($18). I'm glad I did. This one featured some big time flavor, which was provided by the inclusion of Gorgonzola cheese, mozzarella, and sausage. It was finished off with their very tasty Pomodoro sauce, extra virgin olive oil, and a light smattering of fresh local basil. The crust here was not as soggy in the middle as others we have had, and it was cooked all the way through, but still had a little chew to it. Of course, it could have used a little more sauce for my taste, and I'm always up for some extra cheese, but this was probably one of the best versions of this style of pizza I have had.

Not only was this a nice and quiet evening, with our friend Daniele in the car, but Angelina's also proved that they can make an authentic Italian pizza that I will enjoy. It's not going to replace my love for more Americanized pizzas, with all of that gooey cheese, extra sauce, and tons of meaty toppings, but I'd definitely come back to have this pizza again with no qualms. Both Tom and Katie also felt that this was a very solid place to experience authentic Italian, made with recipes you would find in that boot-shaped country. Service was pretty stellar on this evening, with our waitress, Maria giving us the lay of the land here, and answering all of our inquiries. I did feel that the prices here were a bit on the high side for the amount of food that you receive, but I understand the ingredients used here are of a higher quality than what most other restaurants use so this might be more of a special occasion restaurant for most of us, including myself. Special occasion or not, Angelina's taught me that I can appreciate real Italian pizza, and also a peaceful night with Daniele.

Out of five tourists, (because the most famous Angelina in the world is Angelina Jolie, who was in a movie called, "The Tourist", and you'll feel like you're a touring around Italy eating this pizza), five being best to zero being worst,  Angelina's Pizzeria Napoletana gets 3.5 tourists.

For more information about Angelina's Pizzeria Napoletana, head to their website here:

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Giving Fleming's a Shot

455 Newport Center Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660

We've been to Fleming's numerous times, and all those times we have been here through the run of this blog it was for a promotion, and I realized that we have never really done a proper review of this restaurant. I often don't really think of Fleming's when people mention steakhouses, even though I have never had anything but a great experience here.

The main reason for that is geography. Fleming's is off by itself at Fashion Island, while the rest of the great steakhouses are all located at, or near South Coast Plaza. Mastro's, Morton's, and Capital Grill are all situated in Costa Mesa, while Ruth Chris is just a stone's throw away in Irvine. With all the visits to Fleming's we have made in the past, we have learned that Fleming's should not be disregarded, just because they are kind of out on their own island. No pun intended.

This Fleming's location is the flagship of this chain, which was founded in 1998, and has since grown to 67 locations in 28 states. Started by major restaurant veterans, Bill Allen and Paul Fleming, who have had a major hand in creating and overseeing some of the most well-known restaurants out there. P.F. Chang's, Paul Martin's, Pei Wei, Roy's, Habit Burger, and more have been under their leadership at one time or another.

Each Fleming's is run by a chef partner and an operating partner. When we first started coming here this spot was run by Russ Bendel and Chef Chris Hutten. Both have moved on, and the reigns have now been turned over to Operating Partner Stephen Blevins and Chef Partner Kevin Monahan. We were curious to see if they maybe had lost a step, but the busy dining room on this Thursday evening gave no hint of that. Let's see if Fleming's should be considered one of the better steakhouses in OC.

First off, I'm going to apologize in advance for my sub-par pictures on this evening. We were seated in a rather darkened area of the restaurant, and I snapped pictures as quickly as possible, as to not disturb the other guests seated around us. Anyways, Katie decided to start things off with this House Burrata ($13.95). This do it yourself starter came with charred grape tomatoes, toasted garlic points, arugula, and of course the creamy burrata. Katie loved the presentation here, with the creamy cheese and perfectly done toast as highlights.

I'm a big fan of wedge salads, so the New Wedge Salad ($11.50) needed to be ordered. I know it's not in the form of a wedge, I had them chop it up for me, which makes it a lot easier to eat. Not sure what makes this a new wedge salad. It featured some very fresh iceberg lettuce, grape tomatoes, chunky blue cheese dressing, caramelized bacon, and crispy onions. Maybe what made it new was the inclusion of some toasted sunflower seeds, which the menu did not mention. This was a very solid salad. I really enjoyed the blue cheese dressing here. It had a good blue cheese flavor to it but did not overpower. The sunflower seeds and crispy onions added a nice texture element, and the bacon, which would have been better crumbled up instead of served as a strip across the salad, was delicious as well.

I was a little shocked when Katie went with this Petite Filet Mignon ($49.45), instead of the seafood dish she was eyeing before we got here. I always cringe when Katie orders her steak in a place like this, because she always gets it medium well, which usually ruins it. Even though that's the way this 8-ounce prime steak came out, they still managed to make this edible. Maybe it was the pocini mushroom rub, with a garlic butter and Gorgonzola cream that saved this. Whatever magic they worked back in the kitchen, Katie made quick work of this steak.

I went pretty big here, with their Dry Aged Prime Rib Eye ($58.95). Unlike Katie, I ordered this 16-ounce steak the right way, medium rare. It came out beautifully. Tender, slightly charred on the outside and made even better with a very well done Bearnaise sauce, which was complimentary. I could have eaten my shoe with that Bearnaise. A very satisfying entree, but we were not done yet.

As is the case in all these high-end steak restaurants, sides are not included with the entrees, so we ended up each ordering one here at Fleming's. Katie picked the Grilled High Country Asparagus ($12.50), and I have to admit that when she ordered this, I was not too excited about it. She redeemed herself when I got the chance to try this and proved that not all asparagus is equal. This was some of the freshest I have had, and it was seasoned wonderfully with black pepper and salt. The Fleming"s Potatoes ($12.50) were also not to be missed. I assume Fleming's does not feel the need to have a lobster mashed potato, because this potato casserole is so good, and they are correct. A wonderful combination of cheddar cheese, cream, and mild jalapeno elevate the potato to new heights. Just like I go to Mastro's for just their butter cake sometimes, I could see myself coming here just to order these potatoes, they are that good.

Dessert was going to be our last hurrah here at Fleming's on this evening, and I'm almost always drawn towards Carrot Cake ($11.50). This was a good, not great version of this classic cake. Three layers, each separated by a light cream cheese frosting, encased the cinnamon-tinged cake. I though the cake portion was served too cold and could have been a tad moister. Not as memorable I would have hoped.

Fleming's on this evening proved that they belong in the conversation of very good steakhouses in OC, even if you don't immediately think of them. The steaks are the stars here, but the sides and appetizers are great in their supporting roles. I wish they had a signature dessert like that awesome butter cake from their rival that I had mentioned earlier, but still a good night at Fleming's. Even though this area of town can feel a little snobbish, I have never encountered this at Fleming's. The ambiance here is more on the lively side, with a very boisterous bar crowd, which seems to give dining room guests a green light to be a little more relaxed as well. The feeling of the dining room has always kind of felt like a cruise ship dining room to me, which is not a bad thing, as it has the feel of vacation to it or at least a vacation from your day. Service was excellent here. Our waiter Michael was professional and personable and the rest of the staff we encountered were fantastic as well, with management being very hands on. I also have to mention that Fleming's offers some great three course seasonal specials throughout the year, and has a great prime rib special going on now on Sundays and Mondays. So meals here can be a little more affordable than some of their competitors. With all of that said, I have them third, right behind Maestro's and Capital Grille as the best high-end chain steak restaurant in OC, but as always, these rankings are subject to change based on my next visit. Glad we finally made it to Fleming's to do a proper review, and we won't forget about them in the future.

Out of five shots, (not because of the ones being served in the bar here, but for Scottish Biologist, Alexander Fleming, who helped discover penicillin, which is sometimes given in shot form), five being best to zero being worst, Fleming's gets 3.5 shots.

For more information about Fleming's, check out their website here:

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Is Tustin the New Little Italy of OC?

Roma D' Italia
611 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92780

I really enjoy all kinds of Italian food, but I've come to realize that there are two distinct types that are available here in OC. There's fancy Italian food, which is more what you will see in Italy. Restaurants like Prego, Delize's, Andrea, and Antonello's are good examples of this type of Italian, which is lighter with the sauces and cheese, but take a heavier dent out of your wallet due to the authenticity of the ingredients they use.

The second type of Italian cuisine is what I would term, informal Italian. This could best be described as Americanized Italian food. This kind of fare features dishes with heavy red sauces, lots of meat, and items that you would be hard pressed to find on a menu in Rome or Naples. Examples of OC restaurants that fit into this category are Mama D's, Conca De Oro, Angelo and Vinci's, and the restaurant we were going to be eating at on this particular evening, Roma D' Italia in Tustin.

Tustin probably has one of the most underrated collections of Italian restaurants in any OC city. They have both types of Italian spots included within its city limits, along with one of the best Italian markets you will find in OC, Claro's. As far as fancy Italian joints go, you can't beat Pina's Bistro or Barolo Cafe. For more informal Italian spots, they have Ameci's, Pizza Shack, which has been on my list forever, and this place, which was the first Italian restaurant in the city and is still going strong. Roma D' Italia, which opened in 1961, has been run by the Corea family for the last 48 years.

The matriarch, Anna "Nina" Corea passed away in May of this year, but her legacy lives on through her recipes and beloved restaurant that is now being run by her children and grandchildren. The next generation must be doing something right because when we were here, this larger than it seems restaurant was filled with hungry patrons, with much more waiting to be seated on this early Sunday evening at 6. It had been about twenty or so years since I had last eaten here, but I was looking forward to seeing if they could continue our hot streak of very good Italian restaurants in Tustin.

Since we were waiting patiently for our friends Angel and Rebekah to arrive, we decided to start with this Sausage Bread ($9.75). Too bad they showed up as this made its way to our table because we had to share this delicious starter. For this one, they wrap their pizza dough around a mild sausage, and bake it with mozzarella cheese, and then brush the top of it with butter and Parmesan cheese. It's served with a very good meat sauce, or if you prefer ranch dressing. Not overly greasy like other versions I have had, I was pretty impressed with this, and it got me excited for the rest of my meal at Roma D' Italia.

I almost forgot to share the bread that comes to the table before every meal here. I liked this bread, it was freshly baked and was a great vessel for sopping up any extra sauce left on your plate. It was also good with the provided butter as well.

Both Rebekah and I sat this one out since we are not really big fans of tomatoes, but Angel and Katie loved this Caprese Salad ($10.95). Even I have to admit that the bright colors of the ingredients of this salad really brought this to life. Each slice of vibrant red tomato was topped with a small ball of buffalo mozzarella, which was ringed by red onions and topped with basil, garlic, and olive oil. I did try a little of the mozzarella and it was one of the creamier that I have had in awhile.

Entrees were up next, and we might as well start with Rebekah's selection since she did not have any of the Caprese. She ordered this good looking Chicken Marsala ($16.95). This traditional Marsala dish included chicken breast, mushrooms, onions, and a very tasty Marsala wine sauce. I tried a bite, which included a very tender piece of chicken and that very good sauce. A very comforting dish. This was served alongside a side of mostaccioli with meat sauce, which I did not try.

I've come to the conclusion that baked pasta dishes photograph almost as well as burritos, which is to say that they are not very photogenic, but they are usually delicious. Angel felt that was the case here with this Cannelloni ($13.95).  Two pasta crepes are filled with ground veal, and then topped with a generous amount of mozzarella, meat sauce, and Angel asked to have some red pepper added, which they obliged. He was pretty pleased with this dish and called it one of the better ones he has had. He thought there was plenty of meat included in here, and liked the hint of spiciness that the red pepper flakes provided.

Again, not the most picturesque food photo you will ever see, but Katie was pretty happy with this Eggplant Sorrentino ($13.95) at Roma D' Italia. With this plate, they start with rolled up eggplant, which is then filled with ricotta, mozzarella, eggs, Romano cheese, herbs, and then topped with plenty of meat sauce. Kind of like a lasagna made up of eggplant. Katie really liked this original dish and did not miss the presence of noodles, which helped make this more of a low carb option than it otherwise would have been. She ate the side of mostaccioli sparingly because the eggplant was so filling.

Yes, this was all mine. I have a bad habit of almost always ordering a side of meatballs when getting a new pasta dish in a restaurant. I feel that if I'm not a fan of the pasta dish, I can usually doctor it up with extra meat and red sauce. I did not have to do that with this Penne Amore ($13.95). The penne is sauteed with mushrooms, onions, and prosciutto, with a Marsala sauce, and finished with a sprinkle of Parmesan. This was a good dish, but I wish the sauce was a little more prevalent, as it was a little on the thin side. The rest of the plate was good, with plenty of prosciutto. Since I did not mix the red sauce and meatballs into my dinner, I ate them separately. Very tender meatball, which melded nicely with the delicious sauce. I liked this meal, but would probably explore more of their menu on future visits.

All four of us left Roma D' Italia full and satisfied. There's really a family feel to this restaurant, and not just because there are so many families eating here. You can feel the family atmosphere in the food and service as well. This is good, stick to your ribs Italian food. Sure, some might scoff that this is more Americanized Italian cuisine, but that's what I crave sometimes. Not sure why they have closed their other two locations that were once in Orange and Ladera Ranch. It seems like this is the kind of Italian restaurant which would work in any neighborhood, including Italian rich Tustin. This will not be our last trip to Roma D' Italia.

Out of five footballs, (because at one time Tustin High School had the most active NFL players in the league, and I'm also pretty excited for the NFL season to start), five being best to zero being worst, Roma D' Italia gets 3.5 footballs.

For more information about Roma D' Italia, head to their website here:

Roma D'Italia Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato