The True Italian

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Posted December 27, 2007 in Eats

Fine dining in California is usually disappointing because, contrary to popular belief, high prices aren’t all it takes to qualify as upper crust. Thankfully, Claremont’s Tutti Mangia Italian Grill has all the attributes to qualify itself as the real deal—impeccable service, a knowledgeable staff, a storied chef, an extensive martini bar and an award-winning wine list. Regal, yes, and pretty affordable.

Sitting on the corner of 1st and Harvard near the Claremont College, the area surrounding Tutti Mangia is safe and undoubtedly sees plenty of foot traffic as pedestrians window-shop the nearby stores. Oversized windows convey a curbside-bistro feel, allowing diners plenty of opportunity to watch the passerby as well. Inside, diffuse amber lighting pours down from tiny hanging lamps, making everything easy on the eyes. For the winter season, the décor is tastefully dressed in holly and other festive accoutrements, blending seamlessly with the black and taupe linen. Tutti’s space is divided into two wings—one for the full-bar area and one for the dining room. The back wall is finished in mirrors to give it an illusion of a far bigger space, and the ceiling has been raised and painted black for more breathing room. Patrons seem to benefit from such simple design choices, as I observed them deep into their glasses of wine or lost in conversation, without the slightest hint of tension. Space, apparently, goes a long way for peace of mind.

After promptly being sat, our server Elaine greeted us and recited the day’s specials. My companion and I started with Calamari Fritto ($12) served with warm marinara, lemon-horseradish and jalapeño-cilantro dipping sauces. If it’s offered, I always start with calamari to see what the chef will do with such a simple dish. In this case, the squid was cooked well in a flavorful breading that complemented each of the sauces. If I had to nitpick, the breading was a little thick and flaky—but that didn’t prevent us from devouring the entire appetizer.

Soup and salad came next. I ordered the soup of the day, which was Cream of Garlic ($8) and my companion went with the Insalata di Pera ($11.50), prepared with Bosc pears and tossed in honey-lime vinaigrette. The soup was expectedly smooth and flavorful, with a long crouton floated in the center that added just enough substance to the delicious broth. Meanwhile, the salad was generously portioned with a pleasant mix of Romaine lettuce, arugula and basil leaves topped with bleu cheese and candied pecans. Endives were inserted on the sides for convenient scooping of cheese crumbles.

Before the entrées were served, Chef Hugo Molina came out to glad-hand the guests and see how they were doing. He stopped by our table and chatted for a minute before scurrying back into the kitchen to bring out the next course. Besides being high decorated, Chef Molina brings years of experience to his “true Italian” cuisine. Knowing this, when the main course arrived, it was a nice feeling that he lived up to expectations.

The Agnotti Gamberi e Limone ($18.50) was a straightforward ravioli dish stuffed with succulent shrimp scampi and dressed in a lemon cream sauce. As the subtlety of the sauce allowed the full body of the scampi to come through, perhaps a little more lemon would have elevated the dish into something unique. The Cartucci Tutto Maré ($26), on the other hand, was pitch-perfect. Imagine an assortment of shrimp, scallops, calamari, mussels and salmon baked in parchment and resting in a white wine and curry sauce with a side of cappellini. Chef Molina even used Thai broccoli to complete the Eastern influence.

For dessert, we had Crème Brulée ($8.50) and experienced the only true flaw in an otherwise memorable dining experience. The crème brulée we were mistakenly served had just come out of the oven and was runny. Being true to the concept of fine dining, Tutti Mangia did not disappoint in making amends, taking the dessert off the bill. Afterwards, Chef Molina insisted on replacing the dessert with a properly made one despite our protestations. More than that, however, service throughout was of the quality you don’t mind paying more for. Food was coursed properly, drinks were always full and crumbing service was provided to boot, making for un’esperienza di divertimento!

Tutti Mangia Italian Grill, 103 Harvard Ave, Claremont, (909) 625-4669, www.tuttimangia.com; Lunch Mon.–Sat., 11:00am to 2:30pm, Dinner Mon.–Thurs., 5:00pm to 9:30pm, Friday and Saturday 5:00pm to 10:30pm, Sunday 4:00pm to 9:00pm. Reservations are recommended. 


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