The scene is an uninspired corner on Harbor Boulevard in Costa Mesa. The place: a small pizzeria, warm and comfortable despite its European-esque proclivity for decorative paucity. A wood-burning oven glows in the background, consuming the piles of almond logs that are stacked just outside the semi-open kitchen.
Silver-haired Roberto Bignes is the serious-looking man behind the oven wielding the pizza peel. A native Argentinean, Bignes takes his pizza seriously – and not just in the caricatured dough-spinning way one may imagine from a food-stickler foreigner. No, Bignes’s love for the art of the pie runs deeps: Instead of rushing into opening his own restaurant, full of the self-important vigor that he no doubt obtained after a few nods to his abilities and experience under such names as Wolfgang Puck, he chose to hone his craft, taking the time to earn a certificate from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana – the world authority on the art of making pizza in the Neapolitan style. But while he may have taken his time getting all the culinary minutiae right, we’re so glad he did.
Fernanda Masuera, Bignes’s wife and the restaurant’s very able pastry chef, doubles as floor manager in the small dining room. A few minutes after taking our order, she strolls demurely across the small restaurant to deliver our opening course of wild mushroom bruschetta. Piled on top of a thick slice of pesto-slathered bread, a mix of tender mushrooms mingles with melted mozzarella. The mushrooms have a distinctive flavor, whether from the light coating of tomato sauce, or what tastes like it could be a quick sauté in wine. It’s meatier than it looks, and if you’re not careful, could turn into a full first course. With the self-discipline of Shaolin monks, we held out for the insalata di bietole, a salad of baby spinach, braised red beets and candied pecans dressed with orange vinaigrette. Anticipating a potential sweet overload – a scourge currently underway in many culinary circles – this salad thankfully did not suffer. The red beets were earthy rather than candy-like, and the candied pecans added the right amount of sweetness while at the same time being mellowed by the tang of the acid in the vinaigrette. Panzanella, a type of bread salad made with diced ciabatta, tomato, cucumber, red onion, and basil and finished with a red vine vinaigrette was perfectly balanced and refreshing – exactly what you’ll need to prep for what follows.
We’re talking dough – all kinds of it, from pizza crusts to bread, pasta and dumplings. And if there’s ever been an example to illustrate the truism of a commonly uttered maxim, this is it: All dough is not created equal. Bignes’s pizzas emerge from their fiery lair bubbling, blistered and brown. In other words: beautiful. The crust springs slightly to the touch and has a chewiness not found in dough that hasn’t been given enough time to proof. Then there’s the flavor, a subtle yeastiness that is so often missing in even the “best” pizzas. It’s complementary rather than cloying, and even if you’ve never actually experienced the glorious sensation, you’ll wonder where it’s been all your life after the bready aromas of a freshly baked Il Dolce pizza hit your olfactory receptors.
That being said, we have our favorites from the restaurant’s selection of pizzas. Bignes has strayed slightly from the strictest adherents to Neapolitan pizza, who believe pizza should only be made two ways – as a margherita, with cheese; or as a marinara, with only tomato sauce – but one could also say that he has embraced the American obsession with endless choices (there’s even a pizza made with pineapple, pancetta and jalapeños). Of the 22 variations, the traditional Italian pizza with prosciutto di Parma, fresh mozzarella (a fior di latte variety housemade by Bignes from cow’s milk), San Marzano tomato sauce, and fresh arugula is a standout, marrying Old World with Bignes’s exceptional skill.
Likewise, the patata pizza, topped with thinly sliced fingerling potatoes and gruyere is a study in complementary and contrasting flavors, with the starchiness balanced by a sprinkling of smoky pancetta, rosemary, chives, and chili oil. Don’t be fooled by the pizza’s anemic appearance – all those bland colors give way to vivid flavor.
More dough: Bignes’s ethereal gnocchi. A potato dumpling that can turn heavy in the wrong hands, Il Dolce’s gnocchi were soft and light, and tender to the bite. The gnocchi special on the menu – with white truffle oil and white wine cream sauce – were inexplicably light and completely satisfying, and solidified Bignes’s stature in OC: master of all things dough.
A Walk on the South American Side Il Dolce’s primary focus may be Italian fare, but Roberto Bignes and Fernanda Masuera are, after all, native Argentineans. In a nod to their home country, tender-crusted empanadas grace the antipasti menu. Choose from beef studded with olives and hard-boiled egg, or chicken.
Italy Lite If a cheat day isn’t on the horizon, don’t despair: Il Dolce offers a staggering 11 different salad options for the calorie-conscious. With options from the usual (caprese with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil) to the creative (insalata di farro, with lettuce, olive, tomato, red onion, cucumber, mint, ricotta salata, and lemon), there’s something for every dieter out there.
The Real Dolce Maseura, Il Dolce’s modest hostess, is also the woman behind the restaurant’s sweets. A dough master in her own right, Masuera’s tiramisù is light as air, and her white chocolate-lemon-coconut cake practically levitates off the plate. The cannolo – a traditional Sicilian dessert constructed from a fried outer pastry shell and stuffed with a sweet ricotta-based filling – is the most authentic we’ve had outside of Sicily.
Il Conto, Per Favore Antipasti: $3-$18; soup and salads: $8-$12; focaccia: $8; pizzas: $13-$18; pastas: $15-$20; main courses: $18-$19; desserts: $4-$10
949.200.9107 :: ildolceoc.com