I developed a love for North County evenings thanks to my first restaurant job. Driving home late at night on the mostly deserted Highway 101, listening to the waves crash while admiring the moon's reflection on the water, was always a soothing experience.
It had been awhile since I'd made that drive, so I was excited to take my date out the other night for a romantic dinner at one of the many small, secluded bistros that line the 101. I took her to an old favorite of mine, Parioli Italian Bistro at the south end of Solana Beach.
Parioli is situated in what appears to be an old house, with hardwood floors, dim lighting, an open beam ceiling and local artwork decorating the walls. There's even a fireplace to accentuate the coziness-albeit a gas fireplace outfitted with one of those ersatz logs.
The menu at Parioli offers both seasonal and perennial dishes, weighted somewhat toward seafood. The wine list is well-suited to the menu, with obvious matches for much of the food.
The short menu features antipasti, salads and main courses, many of which sound deceptively simple. The preparations may not seem especially exotic or elaborate, but I've always found that with Italian food, I prefer a simple approach and good ingredients.
The antipasti include the usual choices of bruschetta, calamari (sautéed, not fried), polenta and beef carpaccio, as well as more unusual plates like swordfish carpaccio, baked mussels and scallop pizzette.
The entrées, too, consist of staples like fettucine with meat sauce and veal or chicken piccata mixed with creative dishes like salmon baked with black olives, capers and tomatoes, and lamb pappardelle with tomato cream sauce.
Craving seafood, we ordered the scallop pizzette as a starter and the lobster pappardelle and giant crab ravioli for entrées. I also got a glass of crisp and citrusy New Zealand sauvignon blanc, figuring it would pair well with all that seafood and garlic.
Our server informed us that the pizzette is made to order, and would take 15 minutes. We kept the edge off our hunger with the excellent bread (an herb-seasoned, soft ciabatta) and dipping sauce made with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, roasted onion and basil. The bread was so good it was hard not to keep eating it. Wanting to save room, we shifted our attention to the unique ambience.
It's an interesting scene at Parioli. The crowd seems to be mostly regulars, judging by their familiar interaction with the waitstaff. This gives the place a homey feeling-like you're dining among friends, even if your only participation in the conversation is through eavesdropping, which is hard to avoid given the acoustics of the room.
A lengthy lesson on the finer points of BMW ownership, courtesy of our new friends at the neighboring table, was interrupted by the arrival of our appetizer. The crisp pizzette (a small pizza) was tasty, brushed with roasted red bell pepper purée, then topped with scallops, basil and garlic. The scallops were just a touch overdone, but the flavors of all the ingredients combined really well in this dish.
The pizzette was sizeable, so we ate only half. This wound up being a good move, as the entrées were also substantial.
The lobster pappardelle consisted of homemade noodles, roma tomatoes, lobster meat and large shrimp tossed in a rich tomato and fish velouté (a sauce made with fish stock and thickened with cream or egg yolk). The tomatoes were fresh, the lobster tender and the sauce rich. A great dish, and highly recommended.
The giant crab ravioli were no less impressive. Here, two large squares of homemade pasta were folded over a delicate crabmeat and ricotta cheese filling, then topped with a rich tomato cream sauce. The crab flavor was strong but not overwhelming, and the texture of the filling was light and fluffy-another winner.
The only letdown in our meal was the dessert, a peach and raspberry cobbler enthusiastically endorsed by our server. The fruit-heavy bottom had a gummy texture where it met the too-dry and bready crust. I'd definitely pick something else from the dessert menu.
Prices at Parioli are reasonable, considering the quality of the food and the portion size. Antipasti range from $6 to $13, entrées from $13 to $28. Parioli is open from 5 to 10 p.m. nightly, with a happy hour featuring appetizer and drink specials between 5 and 7 p.m. Wednesday nights you can watch classic Italian movies on the patio after 8 p.m.