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This Costa Mesa Italian restaurant doesn't miss a step with its "wine country cuisine."

Red wine-poached pear with whipped cream
Ed Olen

Savor the Flavor
Wine Flights :: Given its dedication to Italy’s
favorite beverage – wine – it comes as no
surprise that Onotria offers some of the most
interesting wine tasting opportunities around.
Wine selections are rotated every two weeks
and range from $15 for three tastings to $35
for seven tastings.
714.641.5952  ::  onotria.com

There’s something about Italian “wine country cuisine” that has unbounded appeal – and is also redundant. The convenient tag phrase happens to be that of Onotria, an Italian restaurant in Costa Mesa owned by the charismatic Massimo Navarretta. When we went there nearly six years ago for its opening, Onotria was bold and avant-garde for OC (handmade pastas and wild boar ragùs graced the food lineup) but at the same time maintained the old world draw that accompanies the world’s finest cuisines. There were also the beginnings of an onsite garden, a friendly bar area, soaring ceilings reminiscent of an Italian piazza, and a deli case full of imported meats and cheeses that would excite and delight even the most demanding foodie.

Years later, curious and eager to return after some advancement in the OC culinary scene, we find that Onotria hasn’t so much changed as it has grown into itself. The garden, while presently scarce in content, looks like it has borne several harvests that ultimately wound up in some form on the menu; the bar is cozier and full of a wide selection of wines ready to be poured by the glass; and the deli case is now its own section of the restaurant, along with a new outdoor pizza and focaccia oven. The restaurant feels more lived in, more a place to gather and share a bottle of wine with friends while experiencing a truly authentic Italian meal. Which is exactly why the “wine country cuisine” label is repetitive: Italian food, by its nature, incorporates the concepts of “wine” and “country” so fully that to reduce it to a slogan is to try to break down something that can’t be articulated in a short catchphrase. And yet, few do Italian “wine country cuisine” better than Navarretta and his team at Onotria.

This isn’t exactly a surprise; it takes but one word out of Navarretta’s mouth to decipher his Italian roots and love of his native cuisine. A subscriber to the Slow Food Movement, a grassroots organization that began in Italy to counter the rise of the fast-food lifestyle, Navarretta’s menu pays homage to traditional Italian food while also incorporating local ingredients where possible. Covering everything from pizzas and focaccias to handmade pastas, small plates, main courses, and cheese plates, the menu is the one aspect of the Onotria dining experience that leans towards unnecessarily confusing, grouping dishes by the types of wines they pair best with (bold red, aromatic white, etc.). Even for those who understand the concept behind food and wine pairing, the breakdown can be on the tedious side. It’s like having to think backwards in terms of ordering. The question becomes, “What wine are we drinking?” instead of “What food do we feel like eating?” It’s very possible that this was Navarretta’s intention – to base the dining experience around the wine – but even this explanation isn’t convincing. The food is too good to let that happen.

We started with a plate of wild boar prosciutto and tartufato cheese (a mildly aged sheep’s milk cheese with pieces of black truffle) drizzled with mosto, a concentrated red wine reduction. Charcuterie is generally one of those areas where it’s hard to go wrong but also difficult to stand out; here, however, Onotria began to show its chops in the thought department. It became clear that some consideration went into the components of this dish – from the non-traditional wild boar prosciutto, which has a deeper flavor than its more popular pork prosciutto cousin, to the aromatic truffled cheese and the final addition of sweet-and-savory mosto, a very welcome departure from the ubiquitous balsamic vinegar. Also on the smaller plate side was the evening’s special focaccia topped with fennel- and garlic-scented pork sausage and red bell peppers, which came out bubbling from Onotria’s outdoor wood-burning oven. Despite the fact that the dough seemed more pizza-like than a traditionally thicker and springier focaccia, the flavors were well pronounced and fresh.

Main courses run the gamut from homemade pastas to sturdier meats and everything in between. We tried both, beginning with the agnolotti pasta filled with goat cheese and white truffle essence in a Parmigiano-Reggiano and mascarpone sauce. Light and somewhat toothy in texture, the agnolotti – a type of ravioli typical of Italy’s Piedmont region – gave way to a smooth inside with the characteristic tang of goat cheese and the telltale aroma of truffle. With a delicately flavored sauce puddled around the pasta, the dish overall was subtle and surprisingly light. On the other end of the flavor spectrum was the lamb chop with a Zinfandel-balsamic sauce over Parmigiano-Reggiano risotto. Intense and full-bodied, the lamb still managed to assert itself against intense wine-vinegar flavors, and the risotto, the star of the show, was cooked to a perfect al dente with sharp flavors of the cheese coming through in every bite.

Dessert at Onotria stays in the traditional vein. Highly recommended is the red wine-poached pear flavored with spices, including cinnamon, and served with whipped cream, but our real favorite was the simple and über-Italian affogato (“drowned” in Italian), which consists of vanilla ice cream topped with a shot of espresso. There’s no going wrong here – just like with the rest of Onotria.

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