Most people really think they’re familiar with the basic Italian culinary provisions; their palates meandering through what they think of as Italian fare, sampling their share of spaghetti with meatballs, fettuccine alfredo or what have you—if not, I’m sorry. I actually thought I knew authentic Italian cuisine, a semi-connoisseur on the entrees that rely heavily on quality ingredients without stepping on the fair soil of The Boot. However, I was completely and utterly wrong. My taste buds haven’t sampled anything close to genuine Italian fare before visiting Fresco Trattoria, a restaurant located right in the middle of Downtown Carlsbad. My visit to Fresco taught me that Italian cuisine is more than what we see from famous chefs on the Food Network or noted on the menus at an Italian restaurant conglomerates. It’s about tradition, family, and heritage, and Fresco Trattoria provides that and more.
Downtown Carlsbad is a charming seaside village with notable attractions like the Carlsbad Village Art and Antique Mall, and the Village Faire Shopping Centre, standing as one of the few communities that hold a firm grasp to its traditional Southern California beachside roots. Amid the quaint shops is Fresco Trattoria, a traditional Italian eatery that caters to whoever is looking for damn good food. Opening its doors in 1999 by Chef and restaurateur Leone D’ Arcangelo, Fresco Trattoria provides veteran and newbie foodies alike with a true taste of Italian fare, and for the inland community, Fresco Grill, located in Bonsall off the 76 highway, offers a menu that is nearly identical to its sister restaurant.
After parking my truck in Fresco’s private lot, 30 minutes before the zero mark of the review, I can see why Arcangelo picked the corner of Carlsbad Village Drive and Carlsbad Boulevard for Fresco—the oceanic breeze combined with a gentle kiss from the sun’s rays probably makes him nostalgic for his hometown of Sperlonga, Italy, or it’s a pretty solid location to have for his flagship establishment. Possibly it’s because of the amount of foot traffic—couples taking a well-deserved Monday off to have a late afternoon stroll, parents gathering their children after a day with sand in-between their toes, and a group of friends meeting after the Manic Monday in the office—all of which gravitate towards Downtown Carlsbad on this day, and most likely many days after.
I meet my guest outside Fresco’s façade, and we enter the establishment as Beethoven’s classic Fur Elise plays softly on the in-house speakers. To the right of me is a landscape portrait of what I assume is Sperlonga, Italy, and as if I defied the laws of time and space, I feel like I’ve been instantly transported to that location by the restaurant’s authentic characteristics. The fresco walls are adorned with Italian décor and art pieces, brick pillars shouldering thick wooden exposed beams and ceiling fans twirling to allay the summer heat, all meticulously placed together to perhaps mirror a seaside restaurant in Italy. A man fashioned with a grey suit tailored to his broad physique, square spectacles, and periwinkle blue tie welcomes us. Sporting with an Italian accent, he says, “How may I help you?” After stating our purpose, he introduces himself as Head Chef Arcangelo, which is a pleasant surprise. When not manning the kitchen, Chef Arcangelo greets guests as they step forth into his restaurant and does his best to give patrons the feeling that what they experience in here is a piece of his hometown and him as well.
Fresco is equipped with two separate indoor dining areas, attached by a long corridor. This allows Fresco to house private parties while still accepting reservations and walk-ins. However, the open patio is the most notable dining area, allowing guests to enjoy the long summer nights California, and specifically Carlsbad, provides.
After Arcangelo shows us to our table, our waiter, Luca Giorgiantonio, welcomes and hands us the dinner menu. After our brief banter about Italy’s brilliant performance against England in the 2012 Euro Cup quarterfinals and Andrea Pirlo’s cheeky penalty kick, Luca lets us peruse the menus. The menu is an arrangement of over 60 plus Italian choices from starters like Mozzarella Caprese, Bruschetta Italiana, and Polenta con Funghi e Gorgonzola to notable pastas like the seafood heavy Linguine Mare Mosso. Other Italian fare such as Fresh-baked pizzas like the classic Margherita, and protein filled Filetto alla Diana and Gamberoni alla Nostromo are featured on the menu as well. Chef Arcangelo himself created every item on the carte du jour, allowing him to showcase his culinary knowledge and the traditional Italian entrees. Fresco also offers the same menu for lunch, providing delicious entrees for most of the day at a lower price. Impressed with the dinner selections, Luca comes back and announces the house favorites on the menu. With so much to choose from, we instead let faith, and Luca, guide us through tonight’s epicurean journey.
Along with the food options, the wine list is quite extensive. Featuring wines by the glass, bottle, half bottle, and even magnums, Fresco’s selection is prominently from Italy, Northern California, and Australia. They also provide three-ounce wine flights, a selection of wine tasters to help guests find their preference. This is an ideal choice for those who want to test the field before diving head first into one of Fresco’s many wines.
Luca again gives his expertise on what will complement our first course. He suggests the Langhe Nebiolo from Costa Stefanio, Piemonte, and we willingly oblige to his recommendation. The Langhe Nebiolo has a sharp, intense, and fruity bite with a hint of spice at the back end. A full-bodied wine, the Langhe Nebiolo is superb choice for those who enjoy strong reds.
While my guest and I slightly indulge in our wine and warm up our stomachs with the complimentary handmade bread sticks paired with house marinara sauce, our first course arrives: Mushrooms Stuffed with Clams and Breadcrumbs. The appetizer features four large mushrooms stuffed over the brim with a healthy amount of a clam and breadcrumb mixture in a light sauce that is composed of tomatoes, onions, and herbs along with a side of asparagus. The mushrooms are plump and firm, cooked just right and give a light resistance on my first bite as it should. The clam and bread filling is moist at its core yet coarse on top, giving a contrast in textures that work together in harmony. Soon the clams join the party and take center stage, offering a salty finish to our first stop in the world of Fresco Trattoria.
Next up is the Melanzane Alla Parmigiana, a generous portion of breaded eggplant, baked in marinara sauce, and complemented with a thin layer of mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Fresh from the oven, the elasticity of the mozzarella cheese depicts telephone wire lines creates a bridge when I pull my portion apart from and the main. The breading on the eggplant gives a faint crunch, and the marinara sauce provides a light tangy kick. I’m usually not a big eggplant fan, yet the Melanzane Alla Parmigiana makes me a believer in the perennial plant. Luca approaches our table, checking on our progress on the eggplant. We quickly praise the appetizing dish and he has a similar retort. “When done right, eggplant is the most versatile veggie,” says Luca. I don’t question this statement one bit.
Guests start to funnel in, beginning today’s dinner rush. And in-between showing patrons their table for the night, I see Chef Arcangelo answering the phone to take reservations. Arcangelo is a renaissance man when it comes to everything that is Fresco. When he’s not creating savory Italian entrees, he is greeting guests as they walk in, or answering the phone, or checking up on groups at their tables. To the left of me, the kitchen is starting to get fired up by the sound of pots clanking together and Luca announcing to the cooks what he needs at one of his tables. A growing light, which I’m assuming is from the burners, carries to the dining room for all to take notice. The machine is alive, and it’s not stopping till it serves everyone within its walls fantastic Italian fare.
After demolishing the first two appetizers, we arrive at the mains for tonight. First is the Rack of Lamb, lightly breaded New Zealand lamb grilled with rosemary and garlic, topped with a Barolo wine reduction and paired with a vegetable medley and mashed potatoes. I allow my guest to take the first stab at the lamb. After his first bite, he states, “You need to try this.” Without any hesitation, I attack. The meat is tender and savory, cooked medium-rare just how we ordered it. It’s easy to enjoy the meat in this dish Fresco’s cooks grill the meat to our preferred temperature, making us happy campers. The Barolo wine sauce is soft at the forefront, but gives a hint its flavor at the end, creating an adventure that I take over and over again with every bite. Here is where our wine, the Langhe Nebbiolo, truly shines. The bitterness and the hint of spice paired with the lamb create a flavor contrast that complements each other. A few tables over, a family begins to enjoy their entrees. A little girl comments to her mother, “This is yummy!” At this point, I understand her statement.
Luca swings by to visit our table, and we discuss our excursion through Fresco’s impeccable rack of lamb and the other previous dishes. Luca says, “We are foodies. We are Italian, it’s in our blood.” At this point, I can’t find any claim to refute his statement. Every aspect of our expedition has been aces. Luca notices we are dry on wine, and suggests an Italian white to go with our next entrée. He quickly scoots away without stating its label. Be that as it may, at this point, we are not at liberty to question Luca’s expertise and his infallible sense of taste.
After seating guests and answering the phone, Chef Arcangelo finds time to visit our table. We applaud not only the flavors, but also the presentation of his entrees. From the mushrooms to the rack of lamb, each dish has been presented in a fashion that speaks volumes of the creator, plated with immense consideration and care. “When there are Italians in the kitchen, presentation is a must,” says Arcangelo. That extra effort to present dishes with a keen eye and thoughtfulness creates an entrée that is much more appealing to our eyes as much as it does to the stomach.
After the wait staff clears our table of unwanted dishes, Luca arrives with our last main and wine presented in a small carafe: Halibut with Mussels and Risotto, and a Pinot Grigio from Albola. The halibut is showcased in a simple manner—lightly seasoned and seared, that’s it, no fluff. It’s firm and crispy but not overdone, creating picturesque grill marks and allowing the flatfish to retain its juices. Each bite of the halibut contains three distinct attributes: a light texture, seared crust, and a clean ocean taste, an interesting combination. The mussels were steamed, and with shells open, they invite us to ravage every morsel. Beneath the main attractions of the dish, a light yellow crème sauce provides another depth of flavor to the entree. I mix the risotto with the sauce, sampling the duality of the two textures, light and heavy. The two contrasting parts created a happy matrimony, complementing each other well. Offering more depth to the dish, the Pinot Grigio’s crisp and clean flavor melds all components together, making each factor of the dish one balanced entity of culinary genius.
At long last, Luca comes by to advertise the dessert options. With an arrangement of dishes like Crème Brulee and homemade Cheesecake, we decide to go traditional with the Cannoli and Tiramisu. Luca comes out with our choices and states, “Have fun.” Having no doubt that I will, I dive into the cannoli first. Two medium-sized cannolis stuffed with custard and adorned with semi-sweet chocolate bits sits in the middle of the plate, lightly sprinkled with sugar and surrounded by a white cream sauce. The crust is flaky, and filling is sweet. I can see the cannoli pairing well with an espresso or latte, creating a flavor combination that has a bitter beginning and a sweet ending.
The tiramisu comes in a bowl covered with cocoa powder and a shortbread pastry placed in the middle. The consistency is thick and airy, sticking to my spoon as I plunge in. The texture is fluffy and light, giving off notes of fresh coffee. It was basically a cloud of coffee in my mouth, lifting me up to a state of euphoria.
With our meal at its end, we take a quick tour of the different sections the restaurant, led by Chef Arcangelo himself (seriously, what doesn’t he do?). He allows me to take a few snap shots of the open kitchen, a portrait of his father and grandfather that hangs in the back dining room, the traditional dark wood bar area, and the wine room that holds an immense amount of wine. Arcangelo goes on and talks about his other restaurants stating, “I’m very proud of all of my restaurants, however (Fresco Trattoria) is my home.”
As I leave the restaurant, the sun is just dipping below the horizon, and the temperature is waning down to a suitable degree, I feel refreshed that there is place like Fresco Trattoria that still relies heavily on its roots. During the tour of the restaurant, a sense of pride for his hometown and heritage emits from Chef Arcangelo. I hear it in his voice as he points out the Italian wines that are set out on display throughout the space and when I ask about the portrait of his forefathers and the radiant mural of Sperlonga, Italy. Lastly, I sense it in his food, his way of delivering Italian fare to the masses. It’s not just about pasta, marinara sauce, and Parmesan cheese, but also about tradition, heritage, and family, and Fresco Trattoria provides just that in a tranquil beachside community.