Thursday, May 9, 2019

Pino's Cucina the Only Italian in Town

Pino's Cucina
27522 Antonio Parkway
Ladera Ranch, CA 92694

The end of April and the first part of June is the start of the busy time for both Katie an I. It starts with our anniversary in mid-April, and then the family birthdays, anniversaries, the usual Mother's and Father's Days keep us very busy through the middle of June. One of the few benefits to this stretch of time is that it gives us an opportunity to try some new restaurants, often with someone else picking up the tab.

That brings us to this visit to Pino's Cucina in Ladera Ranch. Katie's mom wanted me to find somewhere local for Katie's birthday and I was more than happy to oblige. I did a quick search of nearby restaurants on Yelp and found this place with a very respectable 4 and a half star rating, over 200 reviews, and a chef with quite the pedigree.

Chef Pino grew up in Sicily, learning his way around the kitchen from his mom, Giovanna. He left Italy to travel the world as a chef for Princess Cruises for nearly a decade. After the cruise ship stint, he settled down in Orange County in 1995 and has been here ever since. He's worked at Stella's Serious Italian in Dana Point, Antonello Ristorante, and Nello Cucina in Costa Mesa, and has now moved inland a bit to be the head chef at his namesake restaurant. The owners, Frank Domicolo, (Pino's nephew), and Giovanni Magro (Pino's longtime friend) round out the team at Pino's with their own experiences of working in casual and fine dining establishments in both Europe and here in the states.

Pino's Cucina, which opened two years ago, is located right next door to the 24-hour local favorite, Corky's. I believe before Pino's took over this used to be a vegetarian restaurant. Predictably, I never came here when it was the veggie place. The restaurant is a little bigger than it appears from the outside, with maybe twenty or so tables, a few pictures of Italy on the walls, a high ceiling, and a Renaldo Juventus jersey being prominently displayed on the back wall. 

The menu at Pino's is probably what you've come to expect at an Italian restaurant. There are plenty in the way of pasta options, with close to twenty being offered, along with more substantial entrees featuring chicken, veal, beef, and seafood available for guests that want a little more heft to their meals. Entrees range between $18 to $35 and pasta dishes go for $14 to $25 for a lobster ravioli. There's also soups, salads, and starters for customers to consider as well. Enough with the buildup, let's check out what we ate on this one of many birthday dinners for my beloved Katie.

Most Italian restaurants will start you out with a bread basket and Pino's Cucina was no different. They use a soft ciabatta bread cut into manageable cubes, just the perfect size for dipping into the provided olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The waitstaff was very efficient about refilling the bread and dipping sauces with great regularity throughout our stay.

Man, we have been having some good luck with salads recently, and that trend continued at Pino's. Salads are not included with entrees or pasta dishes, but that should not stop you from getting a salad here. This Caesar ($7) was pretty traditional with its chopped romaine, croutons, very good Caesar dressing and thick squares of parmesan. It had the perfect amount of dressing coating each leaf of romaine and the cuts of parmesan were plentiful and added a nice touch. Both Katie and her mom were pretty pleased with their House Salads ($7) of mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, croutons, parmesan, and a fresh basil tomato vinaigrette. Katie praised the freshness of the produce in this salad, while her mom remarked that it was a pretty good size for a dinner salad.

For some reason, none of the appetizers really spoke to me this evening, so I acquiesced and let Katie select one that she wanted to try. She selected the Arancini ($12), which she claims that we have had at another restaurant before, but I had no recollection of it until I did a search of our blog and saw that we had arancini at Bruno's in Brea last summer. Sorry for doubting you, Katie. These at Pino's were definitely shaped differently than the ones we had a year earlier. These were cone-shaped compared to the ping pong ball sized ones we had at Bruno's. These were filled with rice, meat sauce, mozzarella, and peas and then deep fried. I thought these were just okay. They needed more of a pop of flavor for me to take notice. Not awful, but nothing that memorable.

I'm always intrigued by what Katie's mom, Lynn orders when we go out to eat. It's almost always something that I would not expect, like this Chicken Piccata ($18). She was all set to get the Chicken Marsala, but her neighbor convinced her that the piccata was the way to go at Pino's. She was happy she went with her neighbor's advice. This lightly breaded chicken was nice and tender in a traditional, yet delicious piccata sauce made up of garlic, white wine, lemon, shallots, and capers. This also came with a dollop of mashed potatoes and some squash.

I was going back and forth about what I wanted on this evening and eventually settled on this Mushroom and Sausage Risotto ($19). This was a very earthy dish with the presence of the mushrooms and with little bursts of flavor from the sausage coming through each bite. The risotto was cooked nicely also. I thought I got shortchanged when I saw the serving size of this, but it ended up being more than enough, as it was very filling.

The birthday girl opted to get one of the first things I ever made for her when we first started dating, Spaghetti Carbonara ($18). She claims that my carbonara is still the best she's had, which I know is not really true. This one was way better than mine. The cream sauce finished with egg yolk was rich and decadent. The chopped pancetta added a little heft to the dish and the parmesan tied it all together. A very comforting and filling version of a classic dish that means a lot to Katie and made her very happy this birthday dinner.

There were three options for dessert, and not being a big fan of cannolis or tiramisu, that left us with the Profiteroles ($7) on this evening. These were fine cream puffs but did not really blow me away. The outer portion of these seemed a little too tough and there was not nearly enough of the chocolate drizzle on the plate to make it useful for dipping. The inside cream was soft and sweet and was definitely the best part of this dessert.

Even though our ending dessert failed to impress, we loved our visit to Pino's Cucina, each of us vowing to return very soon. I did a quick search of full-service Italian restaurants in Ladera Ranch, and it only yielded one result, Pino's. But this restaurant is good enough to be included on any list of great Italian restaurants in South OC. The Italian cuisine served here is definitely authentic and done just like you'd expect from someone that learned to cook from their mother in Southern Italy. Service was pleasant and efficient and we were even treated to a visit to our table by Pino himself, which was an excellent treat. Pino's was a great choice for one of Kaie's birthday dinners and getting us ready for lots of family time in the upcoming two months.

Out of five zebras, (because it is easy to see from the decorations hanging on the walls, that they love the Series A team Juventus here, and their mascot is a zebra), five being best to zero being worst, Pino's Cucina gets a very strong 3.5 zebras.

 For more information about Pino's Cucina, head to their website by clicking here:

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