Like the phoenix, Prego Ristorante has risen from the ashes eight months after a devastating kitchen fire closed the restaurant. Chef Ugo Allesina and his staff seem very happy to be back, and so were we.
The lovely main dining area appears to be unchanged. The large high-ceilinged space is divided into four rooms separated by tall glass partitions that make each room more cozy while keeping the noise level down. Soft lighting and white linens create a pleasant ambience. Dramatic arched columns give the space a modern Italianate feel. There is also a large outdoor dining area.
The newly renovated open kitchen features a beautiful copper hood and ductwork above it. To one side is a rack covered with long strands of house-made pasta in blocks of red, white and green, representing the Italian flag. Right next to that is a display case of tempting-looking desserts.
The menu here is classic Italian, no fusion to be found. You can begin with antipasto crudo (cured meats and pickled vegetables) or bruschetta, carpaccio or burrata. If you can't make up your mind, try the antipasto misto to sample an extensive variety of tasty items, including prosciutto, cold cuts, shrimp, bruschetta, eggplant, zucchini and caprese (tomato and mozzarella salad). Warm appetizers include one of our favorites, octopus (polipo) salad with potatoes in a lemon dressing.
We seem to have tasted a lot of pizzas lately but haven't run across one in the Genovese style until Prego. We were torn between a cheesy veggie-stuffed calzone or this pizza, which features thinly sliced potatoes, pesto and mozzarella. There is no tomato or tomato sauce, but if you must, there is tomato sauce on the table that comes with the bread service. We loved the combination of garlicky house-made pesto smeared on the crust, the excellent creamy mozzarella and the potatoes that were saturated with flavor as the ingredients melted together in the wood-fired oven. We asked for the crust to be extra-crispy and recommend that you do also.
Continuing to carbo-load, we went on to the gnocchi cibreo. These light but slightly chewy pillows of potato pasta were perfectly cooked and mixed with a generous amount of cubed chicken breast and shreds of radicchio for color. A delicious, velvety Parmesan cream finished the dish. The advertised pancetta was nowhere to be found, but we didn't miss it at all. A couple of other tempting pastas were the rigatoni Porticello with sausage, capers, olives, hot chilies and, of course, garlic, or the pappardelle (wide flat ribbons) with scallops, asparagus and mushrooms in a light saffron cream sauce.
Our entrée from this classic Italian menu was veal scallopini al marsala. Pounded slices of veal were lightly coated and fried and rested on a scanty marsala reduction. They were topped with a sprinkling of mixed mushrooms. The scallops were pleasant, but the real star of the dish was an assortment of very fresh, lightly cooked vegetables, redolent of garlic and slicked with butter. Other secondi range from chicken cacciatore to grilled filet mignon, lamb chops or jumbo prawns.
We were unhappy with the lemon tart that we ordered for dessert, as it had a slightly bitter aftertaste and didn't have a fresh lemon flavor. Our server asked if we were enjoying dessert, and we had to be honest under the circumstances and say "no." We asked for his recommendation, and he generously brought us a sampling of three desserts. The one we really enjoyed was the tiramisu. It was an especially chocolaty version of this familiar treat. Sitting in a pool of luscious, thick, dark chocolate sauce were layers of cake singing with coffee flavor, alternating with layers of creamy chocolate.
It's great to see Prego up and running again. Welcome back!
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Prego Ristorante
Where: 18420 Von Karman Ave., Irvine
When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Appetizers: $7 to $15
Entrées: $11 to $38
Glass: $6.50 to $17.75
Bottle: $25 to $480
Corkage fee: $10
Information: (949) 553-1333 or http://www.pregoristoranti.com