Sunday, April 16, 2017

Build Your Own Pasta Concept Comes to UCI

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:

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