Event - Little Italy West Tasting

When I was a kid, Italian food used to be my absolute favorite to have when eating out. Sure, I loved my mom's cooking too which was mainly Chinese and Vietnamese but something about the use of mushrooms, tomatoes, olives, and basil drew me in. As I got older, it was more difficult for me to like Italian food because a lot of mainstream restaurants would go heavy on everything about every dish - sauce, cheese, carbs, etc. Luckily many other cuisines existed out there to feed me. However, I've recently discovered the talents and delights of Little Italy West whom I met during a vendor tasting at The Hood Kitchen. Transplanted from Florida where their restaurant resides, Chefs Donna and Alfredo Cali are trying to reach out to this coast with their handmade pastas and fresh ingredients. That Italian deli has been going strong for 19 years (and still is pleasing customers down there), and the love just had to be shared over here. We absolutely enjoyed the tastes we had from them that one special night and were happy to have been invited to a Little Italy West-only tasting another night.

The night was, of course, marked by enjoyable wine pours and amicable company. Part of the room's set-up allowed for we guests to watch while the chefs and sous chef Adam Bombly prepared and plated the dishes. I love seeing open kitchen areas like this because it makes one feel more involved in the dining process. Our first dish of the night was one of the most memorable. We began with the Ahi Tuna Sicilian Summer Style, a dish inspired by Hawaiian poke and consisting of many familiar flavors. Instead of having crisps to add a crunch to this though, there was watermelon to lend a satisfying bite to the morsels and also to act as a palate cleanser. Each bite refreshed itself from the spiciness in the chili pepper flakes and the strength of sesame seed oil in the ahi. We found plenty to admire about the freshness of the tuna as well, an obvious trait of chefs who only want to use the best ingredients they can (rumored "to a fault" as they won't make a dish with anything less than what they want!)

Watching the husband-wife duo cooking and plating alongside each other was fun as well because guests could easily see their passion for both their food and each other. As aforementioned, they do have a restaurant in Florida; Chef Alfredo will be at the helm there while Chef Donna leads the way in expansion into Orange County. We were very honored to have had him fly in for this night's tasting. A little background on them both: Executive Chef Donna Cali grew up in Calabria, Italy and has been cooking since she was 9 whereas Chef Alfredo grew up in Sicily, Italy and began culinary training at 18 there but moved on to continue it in Switzerland. With more than 180 varieties of handmade infused pastas and 25 varieties of biscotti under her belt, Chef Donna is an expert on authentic Italian cuisine. Chef Alfredo's specialties include handmade fresh Mozzarella and goat cheese, Italian sausages, and custom cakes.

Our second dish was Gnocchi Alla Prugne (potato gnocchi filled with dry prunes and Taleggio sauce), a riff on typical gnocchi that brought the pasta to a completely different level of eating. I think most people are accustomed to having gnocchi as is with the sauce flavoring the dish but Little Italy West likes infusions. These soft pillows of potato dough were sweetened by the prunes and smoothed out in the sauce. A touch of nutmeg made everything nearly dessert-like but we were told that normally they would shave hard Parmesan over to add a salty component. Unfortunately, it was overlooked during the preparation so we sat instead enjoying our warm "desserts," still very good. Now I'm curious about how it is meant to be served!

Next up was an uncommon dish in restaurants hereabouts (as far as I am aware) - Grilled Eggplant Involtini (eggplant filled with sauteed spinach, sundried tomato, pine nuts, rosemary ham and Fontina cheese over a carrettiera tomato sauce). The grilled eggplant had been sliced so thinly and wrapped around its enveloped ingredients that it fooled most people into thinking a thin pasta dough had been used. There was a unique striated beauty about the grill-marked slices though, and I detected its eggplant origin by the moist "meat" of the vegetable and the familiar tingling my lips get when I have it (I have a slight eggplant sensitivity). The innards were cooked with great care to the perfect temperature. Also, take a look at that sauce - chunky, creamy, and overall a savory accompaniment. Not only were we enjoying the food but we were also enjoying the company of Chef Alfredo himself who came out to personally meet and greet all 30 guests (and drink with us too!).

The last savory entree tasting was just about my favorite because I cannot deny the power of mushrooms. Their Ravioli Alla Toscana (fresh made pasta filled with porcini mushroom and ricotta cheese over a Marscapone sauce) may not have looked impressive bathing under the creamy white sauce but that's because it was a hidden powerhouse of flavor. The pasta itself had been infused with a mandarin citrus zest, giving the entire dish a lightness to combat what could be a heavy sauce due to the marscapone. It was subtle enough, however, not to take away from the other ingredients. What I love about freshly handmade pastas is the difference in texture that you feel between your teeth and on your tongue as you bite into everything. The ravioli created brilliant layers of fresh pasta, mushroom, and fresh pasta with every nibble; the mushrooms were supreme. When people say to save the best for last, they must have been talking about finishing an entree tasting with these ravioli.

As everything was getting cleaned up, Chef Alfredo burst out into song and was joined by another guest. Comical banter between the two during breaks from romancing operatic songs was an addition to the menu no one was expecting. Another guest that evening even came up to sing something for the chefs in appreciation of their culinary art! We listened, sang along, and cheered to the entertainment while dessert in the form of Pesce Al Forno con Amaretti was brought out. Stuffed with brown sugar-ridden dough, the baked peaches were sweet and welcome finishers for the night. As we scraped our plates clean and got ready to settle down for the night after much good food, good company, and good fun, the generous chefs imparted small take-away boxes of fresh curry-infused pasta upon each guest.

If there is one thing I miss about my own travels to Italy, it's the life philosophy. Chefs Alfredo and Donna embodied that passionate love for life that you see bubbling in everyone from the food-loving country; they show it in their seemingly unending happiness, their relationships with everyone, and their careful craft. When they say they infuse their pastas with ingredients, I really think they just mean that they infuse it with love and the flavor of life itself. As Chef Alfredo said that night, "Without love, what is life?" Our greatest thanks to them for having us. We are looking so forward to when they finally open shop in Orange County. There is no doubt that it will be one of the most welcome restaurants you'll be able to eat at.

Photography by Duc Duong who had a hard time waiting to eat his food. More photos available on Facebook here.