Cuisine: Filomena's Italian Kitchen
A family-owned eatery in Costa Mesa blends family and bold flavors
Linda English loves comfort food. When you walk into Filomena’s, her Costa Mesa restaurant, instantly you feel as if you’re visiting a friend’s house. “In Italian homes, everyone always gathers in the kitchen,” she says. “I don’t know anyone who uses a traditional family room anymore.” When you eat at Filomena’s, English has one mission: “I want you to feel like you’re in my home.” This is why as chef and owner she pays close attention to all the small details. Like her chairs – “they’re comfortable and padded,” she says. The dark brown, leather-looking chairs are tucked beneath tables built by her husband, Kent. In fact, Kent constructed not just the tables, but the floor and chalkboard and remodeled much of the place himself. “He’s my fix it, handy man,” says English.
Another reason why you feel as if you’re dining in her home is because English mentions family… a lot. From her stories of growing up in South New Jersey and East Philadelphia to her children who both work at the restaurant, the kindred feeling permeates throughout. A wedding portrait of her grandmother, whom the eatery is named after, hangs on a front wall. Philomena (that’s the real spelling of her grandmother’s name) was born in Bonefro, Italy, but spent most of her life in Philadelphia. She and another aunt taught English several recipes. These are their heirlooms. English’s kitchen is like a trove filled with many culinary treasures. Tiramisu made with Marsala wine that is not too sweet and goes well with a strong espresso. “We do it the real Italian style,” she says. The Sunday Sauce with homemade pasta like her “Momom” (or Nonna) use to make is also a favorite dish.
English also incorporates her own twist on the menu. The chicken with Champagne butter sauce is a recipe she developed during her three decades of catering. “It was always so popular that I knew it would be on my menu,” she says.
The food at Filomena’s is a composite of English’s life. The popular Bolognese sauce comes straight from Florence. “When I got engaged there to my first husband, I had the most amazing Bolognese.” She was so enamored with the sauce she eventually found herself back in the kitchen. “After our meal, they taught me how to make it,” she says. It’s the same recipe that English uses today. “The secret is wine,” she says. “A little tomato paste and lots of red wine.”
Her daughter Lauren is one of the servers. But, she too has a secret. She attended culinary school and now doubles as the restaurant’s pastry chef. On the dessert menu, you see glimpses of her creativity. The vinsetta de créme is her Italian spin on the popular French custard dessert, pot de créme. But Lauren’s version is a chocolate lover’s delight. “I wanted a chocolate indulgence,” she says. The vinsetta is a blend of mousse and custard topped with salted chocolate shavings. “I wanted it to look like a little cappuccino,” she says. So it’s served in a dainty coffee cup. “It’s a little glass of cream. I like the idea of salty and sweet. When I was a kid, I always used to dip my French fries in my milkshake.”
Although the food is comforting, English refuses to rest on her laurels. She frequently creates and tweaks her recipes. One of Filomena’s most popular appetizers, the agro dolce calamari, was concocted by accident. It was a slow night at the restaurant. The weather outside was gloomy and English was dying to experiment. So she scoured her pantry. “We had all the ingredients already,” she says. “We had pine nuts because we make our own pesto. We had calamari and peppers. I threw some things together in a sauté pan and finished it with some honey.” The result: a sweet and sour seafood dish that reminds you of the most comforting and addicting New York-style Chinese takeout. English also tossed in a few shrimp. “Just because I love shrimp,” she says. Now this dish, which started out as complete improvisation, is a neighborhood favorite. On a recent evening, a nearby diner who abhors calamari just could not help gobbling the agro dolce. “It’s really addicting. I just can’t stop and I hate calamari,” he kept shouting in between bites.
The cioppino is also loaded with seafood – fish, clams, scallops, shrimp and huge King crab legs sprawling out of the bowl. Filomena’s portions are generous. Some dishes like the margarita pizza are easy to share family style. And for much of the meal, you can’t help but lean over and try bites from the plates next to you. The ambience is cozy and there’s a welcoming vibe that English and her staff emanates. One slight problem, you just can’t stop eating. “I’m an Italian mom,” says English. “I’ve just got to feed you.”