Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Vincenzo's, Not the Tnew Kid in Town


Vincenzo's
24504 Lyons Avenue
Newhall, CA 91321

I really love Katie's extended family. Coming from such a small family myself, I never really had a ton of cousins, aunts, and uncles around. Our holiday dinners usually consisted of the four of us, plus my one uncle and his family. We didn't even have to break out the dreaded kid's table until my sister had kids. This was not the case for Katie.

An unofficial count on my hands, and not including spouses, Katie has five aunts and uncles, eight first cousins, and countless second cousins. With a family this large, there's always something going on, and on this weekend it was her cousins Steve and Kevin's Eagles tribute band, Dark Desert Highway which was performing. After getting off work on Saturday afternoon, we took the long drive up the 5 Freeway and made it to Vincenzo's just as the first chords of Hotel California were being strummed. Impeccable timing as always.

Of course, this gave us a chance to try out a new restaurant. That's probably the only time that Vincenzo's has been called new recently. They have been in business at this address since 1979, and in those 38 years, they have expanded to four times their original size. The business was started by a former Pittsburgh resident, Vincenzo, who could not find a quality pizza in Santa Clarita like the ones back home in the Steel City. He got a friend to show him how to make pizza, and like they say, the rest is history. Vincenzo is unfortunately no longer with us, but his restaurant lives on with the latest owner, Steven Katz, who is passionate about keeping the originality and quality of the food from back in the day. Let's see if he has succeeded.

Vincenzo's is located right near the 5 Freeway and Lyons Avenue but is set back from the street, and easy to miss if you are not familiar with this area. Just look for the driveway between the Chevron and Shell Station, and you'll find it. Vincenzo's is laid out with two dining areas and the registers in the middle. The ordering process here is not very practical, as the lines get backed up very quickly. Maybe a line dedicated to beverages only would help alleviate the gridlock here. After about fifteen minutes of waiting in line, we finally got back to our seat and enjoyed some Dark Desert Highway. Let's see if the food at Vincenzo's will give us a Peaceful Easy Feeling, or will it be a Heartache Tonight?


Our good friend Rosanna got the Individual Pizza Special ($10.50), which come with a large drink and this Small Green Salad. This salad was pretty good sized for a small salad and came with fresh greens, olives, plenty of mozzarella cheese, and some croutons. I'm not sure if she asked for both Italian and ranch dressing, but I like that combo.



Here's a shot of the Individual One Topping Pizza that belonged to Rosanna. She went the traditional route, opting for pepperoni. What struck me most about this pizza was the thick and puffy crust. There were no complaints from Rosanna about this pizza, but with Dark Desert Highway blaring over the sound system, it would have been hard for me to have heard her anyway.


The menu at Vincenzo's says that a Small Pizza ($18.95) feeds two to three people and since Katie and I could only polish off three-quarters of this pizza, I totally believe them. Since Katie let me pick the toppings, I got onions, pepperoni, and sausage, which are my go-to items on any pizza that I get to choose the toppings for. This was a pretty solid, old school pizza. Kind of reminded me of a less oily Barro's pizza that I had as a kid. It was not overly cheesy, but there was plenty of meat and onions to pick up the slack here. The crust was very prominent and was a great vessel for the toppings. I'm not one for eating the crust of a pizza, but Katie does, and she liked this one.  

Vincenzo's is not earth shattering pizza, but a very solid choice if you happen to be in the area. The setup here is very old school, and I imagine a bunch of people from around this area grew up coming here after Little League games, having birthday parties and also made this a Friday night tradition giving the cook at home a night off. It was packed on this evening, filled with what I assume were big fans of Eagles music. Dark Desert Highway did not disappoint on this evening and this was also a great chance for Katie and me to catch up with her family.

Out of five horses, (because near this restaurant was Gene Autry's, Melody Ranch, which was the setting for many movies, most of which featured cowboys on horses), five being best to zero being worst, Vincenzo's gets 3 horses.

For more information about Vincenzo's, head to their website here: http://vincenzosnewhall.com/

Thursday, April 20, 2017

From Corona with Love


Con Amore Ristorante
2630 Tuscany St. #103
Corona, CA 92881

It has been a long while since we have made it out to Corona for a restaurant review. We had not seen our good friend Anthony for about a year or so, and unfortunately, if we want to see him, we also have to see his wife Sabrina. We decided to make this sacrifice and head out on the improved 91 Freeway? After our hour and a half drive from OC, we decided to try a place new to all four of us, Con Amore Ristorante.

This Italian restaurant is tucked away in the Corona Crossings Shopping Center, right next to the Edwards Movie Theater. With the hard to find location and the plethora of restaurants in the area, it would be easy to kind of overlook this place. Opened since January of last year, Con Amore has gotten some glowing reviews online, been praised for their customer service, and been called one of the most authentic Italian restaurants in Corona. I was pretty excited to see if they could live up to this hype.

We got here at 7:30 on a recent Saturday evening. The 20 table or so restaurant was about half full, and we got sat right away in the comfortable dining room. The feel of this restaurant kind of brought to mind a less corporate Macaroni Grill. Tables were nicely spaced, high ceilings cut down on noise, and a faux rock wall framed their nicely stocked wine cabinet. The small, compact menu still offers plenty to choose from. They have a good number of appetizers, two salad options, pasta dishes, which hover around the $15 mark, and more substantial entrees that are offered for around $25. We eagerly ordered, not only because we were hungry, but because we were hoping that Sabrina would stop yammering on about scrapbooking if she had food in front of her. It was no use, she was not to be deterred talking about some new pair of scissors she had just bought. Fascinating.



When the bread basket was set in front of us, I think we all contemplated putting pieces in our ears to avoid listening to Sabrina anymore, but this is a nice place, so we refrained. This bread was nicely toasted and on its own was kind of average. It was made better with the provided oil and vinegar. They were not shy about offering extra bread throughout our stay at Con Amore.



Neither of the girls is a fan of Calamari Fritti ($13), so this was split between Anthony and me. This was a pretty good version of this fried squid dish. It was nicely fried, without being too oily, and the squid had just the right texture underneath the light breading. This was made even better with the very well made aurora sauce, which I learned is a combination of bechamel, cream, and tomato puree. Wish I'd see this sauce on more Italian restaurant menus.



Both Katie and I are salad eaters, so we got this good looking Side Salad ($6) which is not listed on the menu. This was a very generous size for a side salad. It came with some very fresh greens, tomatoes, olives, roasted red peppers, and a drizzle of balsamic topping this off. A little heavier hand with the dressing would have been my preference, but still pretty solid.



Katie's dinner was out first, and she was very pleased with this Pappardelle Alla Bolognese ($14). The pasta tasted freshly made, and their meaty bolognese was way better than average. Katie described this meal as very comforting, and she said she would get this again on future visits to Con Amore.



Sabrina is a pretty basic eater and doesn't really like to get too out of control when choosing her meals, so this Le Pasta di Mezzanotte ($10) was right up her alley. This was just spaghetti dressed with olive oil, garlic, and some red pepper flakes on the side of the dish. Sabrina seemed to like this, and I enjoyed the presentation here, with the flower and the red pepper flakes on the side.



I needed a little more pizzaz than Sabrina's entree, and I got it with this Penne Carnosa ($15). With this dish, the fresh penne pasta was joined by some house made sausage and meatball in a red sauce. I really enjoyed that almost every bite included either sausage or a meatball. This was filling, without being too heavy. Yes, I added red pepper flakes to this, but I do that with every pasta dish I order.



Probably the best meal of the night belonged to Anthony. He went with the Risotto ai Porcini ($25). This mushroom risotto dish was done really well. The risotto was cooked perfectly, about as creamy as you could get it. There was some big time mushroom flavor in this, which was balanced out by some parsley and Reggiano cheese. A very filling and earthy meal, which I'd probably get on my next visit to Con Amore.



Everything had been pretty good up until this point, and while the desserts we had were fine, they failed to impress. Tiramisu ($9) was a rather small serving size, and the flavor of this was rather heavy on the coffee, which I'm not really a fan of. The Torta di Ricotta Alla Siciliana ($10) was a better choice for me, but it needed more of a sauce to make it more interesting. The guts of this cheesecake were well made but heavier than I usually like. I probably should have tried their cannoli instead.

Even though we did not end on the high note that I had hoped for, I'd have to say that I left Con Amore pretty impressed. For people who enjoy more authentic Italian food, rather than the heavily sauced and cheesed Americanized Italian cuisine, which I also love, this is a great restaurant choice. Not that I have tried all the Italian restaurants in Corona, but Con Amore has definitely set the standard for Italian cuisine in this area. Service was also pretty impressive on this particular evening. The owner, Alfredo was very active during our stay, visiting tables, running food, and even serenading guests with what I assume to be an Italian birthday song. The food at Con Amore helped to soften the blow of seeing Sabrina after such a long absence, and I was proud of myself that I did not have to resort to putting the bread in my ears to try to block out her long winded story about how she got overcharged for a fruit cup many years ago in Tampa. Fascinating story Sabrina.

Out of five foam cups, (because the 9th largest employer in the city of Corona is the Dart Corporation, which is the world largest producer of foam cups and containers in the world), five being best to zero being worst, Con Amore Ristorante gets 3.5 foam cups.

For more information about Con Amore Ristorante, head to their website here: https://www.conamoreincorona.com/

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Build Your Own Pasta Concept Comes to UCI


Spoleto
4175 Campus Dr.
Irvine, CA 92617

I have never really understood why there's never really been a good build your own pasta bowl place around. The only one I remember was Burrissimo in Costa Mesa and Brea, which we visited four years ago. They had the idea to offer Italian food in a bowl, salad, or burrito. Yes, you read that right, a burrito. They were in business for about a year and a half before they called it quits. Now there's another restaurant taking a chance on the build your own Italian concept, and I have to say, I have a really good feeling about Spoleto.

Spoleto quietly opened in early December at the University Center, right in the heart of UCI. Since late last year, they have fine tuned their operation and really gotten a loyal following. Not really surprising since they have four locations operating in Florida, and are the largest Italian restaurant chain in Brazil, with over 300 locations throughout that South American country. During our recent visit, we noticed a lot of returning guests being greeted by the staff. It seems like Spoleto has quietly caught on with many locals.

We had the opportunity to meet up with one of the owners of Spoleto, the very passionate Eduardo Ouvirio. He and his business partner, Mario Chady, who are childhood friends, started in the restaurant business in 1992 and wanted to combine the speed of a fast casual concept while using locally sourced and authentic Italian ingredients, while letting their guests experience culinary freedom by letting them customize their meal to their liking. Talking with the management team it appears their biggest struggle is keeping costs down while getting high-quality ingredients into their restaurants. This means they have to have a good relationship with their suppliers, and they seem to pick suppliers that believe in their concept.












Entering Spoleto, you work your way past the shelving with Italian cookies, sparkling water, and other items for sale and get to the starting point for the easy to navigate menu board.  Here you have your choice of entree ($10.50); pasta, flatbread, or salad. Sorry, no burritos. Then you select up to 6 ingredients and have the option to add three more for an extra dollar. Then you choose your sauce and have the option to add a protein for a slight upcharge. Your meal gets finished off with some parmesan and other seasonings of your choosing. Not feeling like making any choices? There are some specials listed, or you could go with one of the chef's inspired options that are listed above on the menu boards.







Before our tasting menu, the kind folks at Spoleto brought out some plates for us to take pictures of. Since it was approaching almost 7 pm by this point, and with these mouthwatering plates staring me in the face, it was almost agony waiting for everyone to take their pictures so we could start trying some of the great food here.




Our tasting menu started with a sampling of their Roasted Red Peppers, Roasted Red Onions, and Burrata. These are all items that you can use in your own creation to make your perfect meal. The roasted red onions were very special here, and I found myself eating a lot of these. Good, rich flavor to them, I was already thinking of my next visit, and how I was going to utilize them in my first creation at Spoleto. Also worth taking notice of is the very good burrata, which was creamy, but not soupy like a lot of them tend to be. These show the high quality of the stuff they are working with here.





The good folks at Spoleto brought us out a tasting plate of three of their most popular salads; the Spoleto Caesar ($9.50), Fig Proscuitto and Burrata Cheese ($12.50), and the Insalata De Mundo ($12.50). In a minor upset, I actually preferred the Fig, Proscuitto, and Burrata salad better than my usual go-to salad, the Caesar. This version of a caesar was a little too underdressed for my taste, but I usually like my salads dripping with dressing. Wit the fig, prosciutto, and burrata being joined by some strawberries, balsamic pearls, and arugula, this salad had a lot going on and kept me interested the whole time I was eating it. Of course, a heavier hand with their delicious balsamic vinaigrette would have made this even better. The Insalata Mundo came with arugula, some addicting truffle roasted mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, burrata, lemon juice, olive oil, and was finished off with some parmesan. This was Katie's favorite of the three, as she loved the lightness of this salad.





Flatbreads were out next and I was excited to get to try something with a little more substance behind it. These did not disappoint. No surprise that the Salsiccia Arugula ($12) version would be my gold medal winner on this evening. Topped with some very flavorful sausage and marinara, and then kissed by a touch of burrata, arugula, and those roasted red onions I just couldn't get enough of from before. The silver medal would probably go to the Burrata and Proscuitto Caprese Flatbread ($12.50) in a close heat. This one had all the wonderful things you love in a Caprese salad, but with prosciutto added along with those wonderful red onions. Not too far behind was the simpler Margherita Burrata ($11). Burrata, cherry tomatoes, an Italian cheese blend, olive oil, and fresh herbs make up a flatbread which is perfect for people that don't want to overdue it and like to savor each flavor profile in each bite. This was, of course, Katie's favorite of the three. We have such different tastes.





Our tasting menu continued with three selections of pasta. All were pretty stellar, but the winner on this board was the Potato Gnocchi with Bolognese ($12). The gnocchi was cooked perfectly and went so well with the tangy and meaty bolognese. I'm usually not a big fan of ravioli, but both the Chicken and Cheese Ravioli ($12) and the Four Cheese Ravioli ($12) might have won me over. Both were generously filled and would have been pushed to greater heights with a sauce added. Maybe next time.






The hits just kept on coming when these chef-inspired pasta dishes made their way out to us. We got tiny tastes of the Fettucine A La Carbonara ($12), the Spicy Rose ($12), and the Penne Gambaretto ($12.50). I really enjoyed all of these, as they were all pretty unique, and a very good choice for people who are not feeling the build your own concept. Also, do yourself a favor and order a Giant Meatball ($3.75). Very meaty and dense, this ball of meat had a very pleasing taste to it and was made even better bathed in the provided marinara and topped with cheese. Definitely a great add-on for any meal at Spoleto.


Dessert is not to be overlooked at Spoleto. Nutella has been all the rage for awhile now, and Spoleto joined this craze by offering this Nutella Flatbread ($6). Get this with a group, because it was pretty rich. I thought the flatbread base was not going to be sturdy enough to hold this all together, but it did an admirable job keeping things from falling apart. I'd love for them to offer this with sliced bananas instead of strawberries. That would be epic.


This team at Spoleto have every right to be proud of themselves after what we experienced on this evening. The passion and dedication to providing a great product at an excellent value will assure them of having many repeat guests. I'm looking forward to a return visit myself to see how my own build your own pasta bowl turns out. I have a good feeling that this is one build your own concept that will thrive.

For more information about Spoleto, head to their website here: http://spoletoitalian.com/