Just a few minutes’ walk from the gentle waters of La Jolla Shores beach sits Osteria Romantica, an upscale yet cozy Italian restaurant that boasts a true Italian experience. Despite the title “osteria” which in Italy would suggest a very casual restaurant, it is closer to a “trattoria”, an eating establishment that is more than just a casual dining environment but not overly fancy, making it ideal for both a meal between friends and a romantic date night, whatever your preference.
The second diners enter the restaurant they are treated like family. From the charming waiters who greet every guest with a hearty “Ciao” in Italian, to the countless photographs and trinkets that adorn the walls, every ounce of the place seems to invite diners to join the family, which is exactly what one will find at Osteria Romantica. Of the many guests who eat here each night, it is guaranteed that nearly half are regulars who come several times a week to enjoy the authentic cuisine and cheerfully loud bursts of Italian from the staff.
The lighting in the dining room is dimmed slightly, enhancing the warm atmosphere and allowing diners to enjoy their meal by candlelight with the subtle sounds of waves in the background, conjuring images of the Mediterranean coast. The tables are covered with green and white checkered table cloths and matching napkins, with wooden green chairs arranged around them. The walls are adorned with wine racks and bottles of oils and spices between other accents, like photographs, paying homage to owner Fabio’s roots in Como, a city in northern Italy. There is a front and back section, with the back section available for private parties, as well as an outdoor patio that serves as a wonderful spot for people watching and enjoying the sounds of nearby waves. While there is no specific parking lot for the restaurant, there is ample street parking in the surrounding area.
The menu offers a wide range of Italian cuisine, providing traditional dishes from Minestrone, Veal Ossobuco, and Cioppino, to a wide variety of pastas like the traditional Penne Arrabbiata and the popular Fettuccine Ubriache. Choices abound for both strict carnivores and vegetarians alike, and the kitchen is very hospitable when it comes to making substitutions for picky people. In addition to the Minestrone, vegetarians can choose from dishes like the Fettuccine Ortolane, Cappellini alla Checca, and Cappellini Vegetariani.
Alongside the tempting food options is an extensive wine list, featuring wines from regions all over the world and a knowledgeable staff to help diners find the perfect pairing to accompany their meal. From the versatile Cabernet Sauvignon to the rich Merlot, the light Chardonnay to the gentle Pinot Grigio, the lively Champagne to the sweet Moscato, the choices abound, with the opportunity to sample both local and foreign wines.
My guest and I are greeted at the door by our server, Matteo, who invites us in out of the cold despite the fact that the restaurant is not due to open for another ten minutes. He allows us to have our pick of tables and we choose one in the center of the front room in order to get the full effect of the atmosphere, just close enough to the small bar with the ability to glimpse into the kitchen so we can listen to the chefs chatter away in Italian. We are brought glasses of water and fresh bread with a chilled basil marinara sauce instead of the traditional olive oil or butter, which is bursting with a fresh tomato and garlic flavor that leaves us in eager anticipation of the rest of the meal.
As we give Matteo our order we can’t help but notice that he is originally from Italy as Italian words and phrases speckle his speech effortlessly. He makes several recommendations as he presents us with glasses of the house Pinot Grigio, which is lightly chilled and slightly sweet. It pairs perfectly with the meal as it feels light and refreshes the palate with each sip, allowing us to savor each bite with fresh taste buds.
We decide to begin with the Antipasto Plate, which usually consists of Italian meats and cheeses. We are happily surprised when a large platter arrives full of Bruschetta, caprese, olives, chilled roasted red peppers and artichokes, goat cheese crumbles, and slices of smoked mozzarella, prosciutto, salami, and mortadella. The first thing I notice about each element as I sample the spread is that nothing is overly seasoned or salted, but rather is allowed to stand on its own so that each fresh element is immediately palatable. The bruschetta is a small, crisp crostini topped with a thin layer of pesto that adds just a hint of garlic and basil to the fresh chopped tomatoes piled on top. The caprese consists of half a ball of fresh mozzarella atop a thick slice of fresh, crunchy sweet tomato and lightly peppered, so that the two elements complement each other as both crisp and creamy but entirely fresh. I pair the prosciutto with a slice of smoked mozzarella and the salty meat is perfectly matched with the subtle, smoky flavor of the cheese.
We are pulled away from the platter only by the arrival of our second course, the Tortellini Bolognese. Matteo tops it off with fresh grated parmesan cheese and lets us dig in. Immediately I notice that the tortellini is tri-colored: red, green, and “white” after the colors of the Italian flag. Each one is filled with a gentle burst of cheese that blends wonderfully with the soft pasta shell. The sauce is good enough to eat by itself, and my companion and I find ourselves doing just that to get the full impact of the sweet garlic and onion coupled with tender beef and Italian spices like basil and oregano. The flavor of the dish is extremely complex, and we are amazed at how the natural flavors of each ingredient shine through on their own without tasting overly salty. The entire dish is topped with a large dollop of mascarpone cheese, which we mix in with the sauce and tortellini to add a rich creaminess to the dish.
We have to stop ourselves from devouring the entire portion as we are delivered our next course, a large helping of the Pappardelle pasta, which comes topped with braised lamb and a mushroom, olive, rosemary, and brandy sauce. The flat noodles are thick but not too starchy and Matteo informs me that they are made fresh in house. The thin sauce permeates the entire dish, including the pappardelle itself, with a fresh rosemary taste and luxuriously rich lamb flavor. The lamb itself is so tender that it nearly melts in your mouth, reminiscent of a Sunday roast that spent an entire day in the oven. Much to my excitement there is plenty of lamb to go with every bite of pasta, unlike so many dishes which fail to provide enough sauce and meat.
As we begin slowing down on the pappardelle, we are presented with the dish from the Secondi portion of the menu, the Pollo Arrotolato. Just looking at the dish we can see the delightful richness of the sauce covering the chicken: thin slices of cremini mushrooms in a creamy sauce with a hint of parsley. The sauce adds just the right amount of vegetable flavor to the moist chicken breast which is stuffed with a mixture of creamy ricotta cheese and wilted spinach, creating a smooth blend of flavors that manages to be both hearty and light at the same time. The chicken is served with a side of roasted potatoes with a slightly crispy texture, in addition to a small portion of steamed carrots and broccoli which are cooked with a small amount of garlic until soft and just slightly crunchy.
Just as we begin to feel we could not possibly eat another bite, Matteo brings us one of their signature desserts, or Dolci, a fresh Strawberry Napoleon. It consists of layers of thin, flaky puff pastry, freshly whipped cream that is slightly sweet, and strawberry slices that add just the right amount of sweetness to round out the dish. Finally, the tower is topped with a thin drizzle of dark chocolate syrup and dusting of powder sugar. The pastry provides a slightly crispy texture to balance the delicately smooth cream, complementing the soft bite of the strawberries. Despite our full stomachs and savoring each mouthful, we polish off the entire napoleon in just a matter of minutes. We finish everything off with a traditional shot of Italian Limoncello that is characteristically slightly lemony with a strong bite that hits your tongue and cools down as the sweet, syrupy texture melts in your mouth.
As we say goodbye to our new friends who send us off with a jovial “Ciao!” we can’t help but smile, thinking about the authentic, fresh pasta, meats, and specialties. We cannot help but glance at the menu once more on our way out and discuss what other dishes we would like to try on our next visit, despite our full stomachs. Thanks to a family-oriented staff and a home-style Italian atmosphere coupled with hearty Italian fare made for a simply unforgettable dinner.
Insider Tip: When ordering, ask your server for recommendations on wine pairings and additional courses to complement your selection. Their knowledge of Italian dining customs can provide a more authentic and pleasurable experience.