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New Italian eatery worth a visit
By Michael Sullivan 01/08/2009
If there was ever a new restaurant that had the potential to achieve success, Spasso — located just seconds from the beach at the end of Seaward Avenue — would be among the top choices for new restaurants opened in Ventura during the last year.
For Pierpont and Ventura Keys locals, Spasso is a welcome addition to the restaurants of the quaint commercial beach district — reachable by just a brisk walk from anywhere in the neighborhood. For diners looking for something different and inviting, the cuisine ranges from familiar fare like calamari fritti and pizza to unusual dishes, such as carpiccio, which is thin slices of raw beef with sides of assorted garden varietals. For out-of-towners, nothing can beat sipping an authentic Italian red wine on the patio while eating a moist, heavenly piece of tiramisu — preferably during the warm summer or fall months.
Spasso is an ideal spot to entertain guests or just to take a breather by the beach. Even when busy, the noise level is tolerable, and the dining room is comfortable, with dark wood tables and chairs accented with candles and orange napkins.
For my last two visits, the owner and his fiancé (perhaps now his wife) have been more than hospitable. Like any great host, they are quick to attend to the basic necessities — water, drinks and a complimentary appetizer of freshly baked bread and a sun-dried tomato spread. Albeit the spread was a little bland, it beats butter by a clear margin.
After my son, my mom and I had all settled in, it was time to scrutinize the menu. By the looks of the dining room and the menu, my son would not be looking forward to a pizza with a happy face of pepperoni. Spasso apparently isn’t in the business to cater to youngsters, so if you have five or six of the little ones, bring your own crayons and coloring books or opt for Chuck E. Cheese’s instead.
The menu and specials did suffice for all of our appetites, though: zuppa di giorno (creamy tomato, soup de jour; $6.50), Francesco’s salad (marinated shrimp over endive, radicchio and arugula salad with Saba dressing, a grape most reduction, $9.50), pizza with salami ($11.95), and the special of the day, mushroom risotto ($16.95). We also ordered two beers at $6.50 a piece, a $3 Sprite and a San Pellegrino for $4.50.
First to arrive, which took only a few minutes, were the soup and the salad. The soup was fantastic, and if at all possible, I would suggest that it be a permanent selection on the menu — at least through the cold season. My son, as picky as can be, couldn’t get enough of it. The salad was good enough. Although the dressing was a little too sweet for my palate, I managed to pin down only one of the shrimp as my mother scarfed down the other three. The shrimp were flavorful and cooked to perfection.
Next, the pizza and the risotto. While I know a good pizza when I taste one, I am no connoisseur of the creamy rice dish. While we all indulged in the pizza (my mother had never tasted salami on pizza before and certainly seemed to enjoy the unique topping), my mother and I both agreed the risotto seemed a little bland. With full disclosure, we certainly don’t go around looking for the best risotto dishes. Maybe it needed a little pep — marinated artichoke hearts or some type of meat.
When everything was said and eaten, we were all pretty stuffed. We had plenty of leftovers, the pizza and the risotto. I thought the pizza would have been much smaller but it could have fed all three of us, and we could have opted to skip the risotto.
Our final bill: $70.09. That was our only true regret. A little high for a Monday night out. Maybe next time, we will just go with a pizza and some soup. Just those could have filled us up. I would definitely skip out on buying beers next time — a little too pricey for a Stella Artois, unless, of course, your mission is just to go out for drinks.
Overall, I know I will be back. I live too close not to indulge from time to time, but I do encourage inlanders to head toward the beach for some carpiccio and a slice of tiramisu. The service was excellent, and the atmosphere put everyone in a good mood.
Italian innovation At Spasso, the food is creative and delicious, dish after dish
By Rita Moran
The first thing I asked our server at the new Spasso Cucina Italiana at the foot of Seaward Avenue in Ventura was what the restaurant's name meant.
He gestured cheerily, explaining in a charming Italian accent that "spasso" means something akin to partying with friends. A quick check with Google translations also came up with "getting around."
Both seem on the right track. If the food served at Spasso is any indication, there's plenty of convivial feasting ahead. We were treated to tasty, creative dishes and excellent service during our early-evening visit.
The large dining room — once home to Juro Cho Sushi — was filled with spiffy black tables and chairs. At each place setting was an orange paper napkin of good quality; when the dinner hour came, the paper was replaced by linen napkins of the same hue, and dainty lights were set aflame on each table. Spasso was ready for a festive evening.
Unfortunately, we were among the very few who appeared to have found the spot since its quiet opening. Other diners are missing a treat: We found Spasso's food to be interesting and delicious, dish after dish.
Designed and carried out by executive chef Fernando Ortega and chef de cuisine Reagan Moore, the menu is faithful to Italian favorites while also being innovative in a contemporary style. In fact, we had trouble narrowing down our selections because so much on the compact menu sounded worth a try.
Ultimately, we decided on Rocco's Beer-Battered Prawns ($11.95) as an appetizer, then chose the cream of mushroom zuppa di giorno ($6.50) and Francesco's Salad ($9.50) to share.
"Rocco" turned out to be our server and, we subsequently learned, a co-owner of Spasso.
Between good-natured exchanges as he tried to clue us in on correct Italian pronunciation of basics like "thank you," the Turin-born Rocco Suriano told us he enthusiastically endorses "his" dish. It features succulent prawns in a light, fresh breading, sitting on a base of mixed greens drizzled with a raspberry vinaigrette. It could easily serve as appetizer and salad.
It turned out that our Francesco's Salad also had the seal of approval from a co-owner, this time from Rome-born Francesco Cionti. The salad's shrimp were marinated before being blended with tart and spicy endive, radicchio and arugula. The slightly sweet dressing was made with saba, a type of balsamic vinegar that is cooked down for a condensed essence of grape.
We had hoped to try just a cup of the mushroom soup, but after the full, flat bowl arrived we found it so drenched with flavor that we were happy we had more to share.
I considered a beef carpaccio appetizer. Then I noticed that one of the pizzas (12 inches, $15.95) was a pizza carpaccio, combining traditional pizza sauce, mozzarella and thin sliced beef, topped with fresh arugula and shaved Parmesan. Pizza carpaccio would be a first for us, so I ordered it for my main course. It arrived with the unusual topping aligned over a thin-but-not-crisp crust, which with its just-made air was a fine change of pace.
A young server brought a small dish of cracked peppercorns to the table as an enhancement, but I passed. Then, tasting the pizza, I decided that a little pepper would indeed brighten the subtle flavors. Just in time, Suriano returned to see how everything was going and the peppercorns made a swift return. They added a nice kick to the mild-mannered pizza.
My friend selected pollo marsala ($17.95), which was a light and lively version of the familiar dish. The fresh vegetables that completed the plate were of high quality and included baby carrots, broccolini and small red potatoes, all nicely grilled.
Spasso offers a modest selection of California and Italian wines, plus a few international selections by the bottle. Prices range from $27 for an Italian white to more than $100 each for three of the Italian reds. Wines by the glass are $6.50 to $9. (We sipped glasses of Ancient Peaks sauvignon blanc and, at Suriano's suggestion, the 2006 Montepulciano D'Abrizzo Vigna Corvino.)
The well-paced service not only saw our dishes arriving and departing at an appropriately measured pace, but included swift retrieval and replacement of utensils as needed. The timing and attention to detail allowed us to select a dessert from Spasso's dolci menu, as we were not on too-full overload.
Our eyes fell first on the cassata Siciliana, a custard ice milk with orange peels and chopped, pralined hazelnuts, but Suriano quickly noted that it was the one item not available that night. (All desserts are made in-house.)
We then began to weigh the virtues of tiramisu and chocolate truffle mousse and asked for Suriano's advice. He's a chocolate lover, so the choice was easy. The mousse arrived in the form of a tennis ball-sized mound, served in a dark chocolate crust in the shape of a broken sphere. It was the richest concentration of chocolate we've had in a long time.
We relished it immensely, also enjoying its scattering of fresh strawberries, dabs of sauce and dollop of cream — and still we could only finish half of it with our cups of coffee. (We took the rest home and nibbled on it for a few days.)
Among the items we would explore on a return visit are a timballino di salmone appetizer, Italian panini such as the pollo Torinese combining grilled chicken, tomato, lettuce and pesto aioli, a traditional osso buco and costata di maiale, a pork chop that has been pounded, breaded and pan roasted before being topped with a balsamic reduction. Intriguing pasta dishes include ravioli bandiera, rainbow ravioli stuffed with chicken and ricotta sauteed in butter sage with pesto cream sauce.
We found Spasso a most congenial spot, and the food fascinating. A bonus was the view from our tableside window of the sun as it set over the ocean just a short walk away.