By Nancy Powell
Italian opera booms against a dramatic backdrop of rosy pinkness, from the shell pink drywall and cherubic angels to lacy pink valances that shield the afternoon sun away from hungry eyes, offset only by the occasional hint of upholstery and the dark browns of sparsely populated wine racks. Even the cream colored sliding door that separates the banquet room from the rest of the dining crowd evokes varying degrees of pinkishness.
It might be hard to imagine measured elegance from such dated, pastel extremes, but ask any one of the dressy weekend patrons at Napoli Restaurant, or the towering hulk of its Italian proprietor and head chef, Santokh, and they tell a different story. The story goes something like this—good, old-fashioned, hearty Italian comfort food, albeit pricier than the average Olive Garden wannabe (also a staggering leap above the average Olive Garden), served in a surprisingly classy setting. There aren’t any particular standouts to brag about, save that any dish Santokh produces in his kitchen does complement his vast Roman empire of pink.
The afternoon I arrive I am greeted by Napoli’s legion of attentive servers and whisked away to a cozy, linen-covered booth with a commanding view of Redlands Boulevard beyond. I am impressed by the quickness and the acumen of Santokh’s legionnaires, who take any item on the formidable menu (we’re talking four solid pages ranging from traditional pastas to veal, seafood, meat and poultry, including a grilled rack of lamb with Chianti wine sauce that brings a satisfied smile to my server’s face) and create a poetic, sing-song recitation of the item’s main ingredients, down to its saucy details.
The restaurant is known for its Eggplant Parmigiana, lightly breaded and baked in a sultry marinara sauce, and the bruschetta. However, I spring instead for lightly breaded fried mozzarella squares in savory marinara, the lunch-sized portion of cheese pizza (for the picky companion in my group of two) and one of the white-board specials—a seafood and angel hair pasta dish complemented by a champagne cream sauce. The specials are accompanied by a thick, starchy bowl of Pasta Fagioli and basket of garlic bread. Not the garlic breadsticks or buttery orange piles of goopy bread, but rather slices of soft French baguettes, lightly toasted with a layer of fresh and dried garlic and herbs. One could survive simply on the bread and soup alone.
The pasta, which arrives soon after the soup, is equally appetizing. This dish includes generous chunks of white fish, shrimp and scallops mixed in with diced spears of asparagus, spinach, and tomatoes. The cream sauce is surprisingly light and flavorful, and it does not overwhelm the dish with its soupy depths.
A couple of bites in and I’m ready to call my lunch quits, but only because of the over-zealous portions and an appetite satisfied by the previous accompaniments. Even at lunch, one entree could easily be split into two. Fortunately, Napoli’s lunch menu closely mirrors its dinner selections, so one can sample from Santokh’s extensive choices on more than one occasion without breaking the bank.
Napoli Italian Restaurant, 24960 Redlands Blvd., Loma Linda, (909) 796-3770; www.napoli-italian.com. Open 11AM-9:30PM daily. AE, D, M, V.