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Coast Magazine June 2005

Modo Mio by Nicole Prentice

I knew a few things about restaurateur Gian Franco Bertolino before showing up at his new Italian restaurant in Crystal Cove Promenade. I knew his flagship restaurant is in another gorgeous coastal community, the Pacific Palisades. I knew that he serves dishes you'd find in the northern region of his homeland and that hospitality is key, as it is for any true Italiano. I suspected that he likes food "his way" per the translation of his restaurant "Modo Mio" or "my way." But what I learned from dining in his restaurant outweighed everything else: that his attention to detail ensures the dishes taste as authentic and fresh as if he were serving them at a ristorante in his hometown of Modena, Italy (north of Tuscany), the region's capitol of gastronomy.

We arrived to anything but a rustic kitchen, or cucina rustica, as dubbed on the menu. This Newport Beach locale is a stark, modern design of earth tones with smooth lines, bare walls, and a waterfall opposite the entryway. Beautifully lit with up-lighting, pendants, and candlelight, there is a touch of old world with candles that look to be circa 1800 on each table. (The windowed walls facing the ocean bring you back to present day by giving you a view of the strip mall's parking lot; though I admit the high end cars parked here are quite a view themselves.) While the aesthetic illumination sets a mellow mood, this is a bustling, open restaurant packed with tables of friends and families and couples on date night.

We were introduced to the meaning of "my way" with an amuse of raw white mushrooms barely done up in olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon and chopped herbs, a message from the chef that his approach is honest and pure, with an emphasis on fresh products. I instantly figured "cucina rustica" must be the theme behind the scenes. Another example of freshness was the sauteed Portobello mushroom with an inviting aroma of fresh garlic from the grilled cloves sprinkled on top. The thinly sliced, tender, rich prosciutto with melon and a bit of freshly cracked pepper on top satisfied our taste buds from sweet to savory. We moved on to more complexity with a decadent seafood ravioli. The house made pasta shells stuffed with clams were beautifully presented, sprinkled with fresh herbs, sauteed tomatoes and lobster bites. (Perhaps there is no art on the wall so as not to distract from the artful creations on the plates.) It's wonderfully rich. The dish was offered as a special the night we were there, so if you don't see it on the menu be sure to make a request. For entrees, I ordered the free range chicken Valdostana. This dressed up dish was also rich, stuffed with spinach, provolone cheese and prosciutto then topped with a tomato based sauce with Marsala wine and demi glace. The chicken was moist, and each bite burst with flavor. My dining partner opted for a simpler choice, the tagliata di manzo all'antica. This sliced premium Angus didn't need to be anything other than straighforward, simply marinated with herbs and virgin olive oil. Meat dishes are a centerpiece here. Nearly half a dozen veal plates from a top round sauteed with lemon to a grilled veal chop with herbs. For those looking for saucy, whether it's creamy or meaty, there are classic, heavier dishes to choose from such as Tagliatelle Bolognese, traditional flat noodles with meat sauce, and gnocchi in a tomato, pesto and cream sauce.

The service fits the Italian mold-attentive. We had a knowledgeable waiter, Michael, who helped guide us through the wine list as easily as the cuisine menu. They feature a nice selection of California and northern Italian wines by the glass, many from Piedmont and Tuscany, and a range of more affordable to pricey by the bottle. Desserts are tried and true staples with tiramisu and ever-changing flavors of gelato at the forefront.

Bertolino promises not to disappoint in any way.

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