Event - Tasting Canaletto for Newport Beach Restaurant Week 2014

Even on a Tuesday night, Canaletto was fairly busy with plenty of diners in the bar area, patio, and main dining room. Conveniently located across the way from one of Fashion Island's parking structures, this Italian restaurant is easily recognizable on evenings by the amassing of high-end cars along the curb. Valet service seems like it would be necessary on the busiest of Newport Beach nights as assuredly the shopping center and growing hub of quality dining establishments attracts flocks. Upon invitation, we ventured to this Italian restaurant (of the Il Fornaio conglomeration) and chose what we thought would be a less busy night; however, Canaletto's popularity was apparent. Most guests were still dressed in business clothes, suggesting that this was a go-to for nearby corporate buildings, and one look at the steal of a Happy Hour menu confirmed it. Luckily, the main dining room only became busier towards the end of our meal so we were able to enjoy the cozy and welcoming warmth for the majority of our dinner.

The dim lighting and our reluctance to disrupt other diners' meals with intrusive external lights did not end up producing the most well-composed of pictures but one look at the styling on each plate should leave a positive impression about Canaletto's attention to presentation. The menu read in Italian with descriptions in English which gave me some time to brush up on my half-forgotten Italian. The appetizer menu was pleasantly full of dishes uncommon to typical Italian restaurants in the area so we happily opted for an order of the Calamaretti Fritti ($13.99 - baby squid lightly floured and deep-fried; served with grilled polenta and spicy marinara sauce) and the Carpaccio di Spada ($15.99 - house-cured carpaccio with sliced fresh artichokes). To our surprise, the calamaretti were not as small as expected but because they were so lightly floured, they did not overwhelm us. In fact, many places make this dish too heavy with the deep frying but we found these easy to devour without taking up too much stomach real estate. Between the two though, I was much more inclined towards the carpaccio not only because it was more unique than I have seen elsewhere (swordfish!) but because all of the flavors worked well together. The saltiness from being cured was offset by the pops from the capers. I believe this one is on the Newport Beach Restaurant Week menu so highly recommend it.

The entrees on the menu were extensive and spanned areas from pasta to meats to seafood and so forth. Duc, however, was craving a taste of their pizza after having set eyes on their wood-burning fire. It was hard not to admire the beauty of the entire kitchen though because it was completely open for the whole dining room to view. The fire caught our eye easily, and the tantalizing thoughts of what a pie would taste like coming out of there caused him to order the Cristina ($17.99 - fresh Mozzarella, Prosciutto San Daniele, shaved Grana Padano, mushrooms, and baby arugula drizzled with white truffle oil). All of their pizzas are made with thin crusts and using housemade dough and Mozzarella. I smelled this coming out of the kitchen before it even hit our table because of how pungent truffle oil is. The beautiful slices of imported and authentic prosciutto were bountiful, and their inherent saltiness were complemented by the vegetal bitterness of arugula. Sauceless, this pizza held its own ground with all of its fresh ingredients, and we rapidly had our way with it. Despite how much I enjoyed the pizza though, I was even more enamored by my order of the Pappardelle Gialle Ai Funghi ($16.99 - fresh wide ribbon saffron pasta, porcini, crimini and shiitake mushrooms, Taleggio and Grana Padano). Not only is it my favorite type of pasta but this particular dish with its housemade ribbons of passion were beautifully surrounded by such an embrace of mushrooms that would make a mycophile happy. Every swirl of my fork produced a bite that coated my lips and mouth with umami that could be savored for a while. I especially loved the texture of the pasta with each chew.

Luckily the appetizers and entrees somehow managed to still let us give way to desserts. In traditional Italian fashion, a dessert tray was wheeled out with two tiers of tempting dessert samples from which we could make a choice. How does one not say "everything" when they are all out in the open for eyes and mouth to consume? We managed to maintain composure though and chose the Tortino Al Limone Verde ($7.99 - key lime custard with Amaretto cookie crust topped with Mascarpone) and Affogato Con Gelato Alla Grappa ($8.99 - Grappa-raisin gelato with espresso coffee and whipped cream). The former was presented as a "lime cheesecake" but we knew it was different once it was set in front of us; swirled with three very different plate-side sauces, it got the star treatment and produced a variety of flavors. I personally was not a fan of this one because it was too tart for me but Duc relished in it. My affogato seemed more raisin-heavy than anything else so while it was still enjoyable, I spent much more time digging up raisins with a spoon than savoring gelato and espresso. However, it still was able to finish off the night well.

The staff was extremely gracious and helpful not just to our table but also to other patrons as we saw. After our meal, we were lucky enough to be shown around by Giorgio Tegami, Managing Partner, who took pride in their mercato in plain sight as well as their impressive back-of-the-house collections. Nearly an entire wall was dedicated to their severally tiered wine cellar, and two large double doors showcased such gorgeous cured meats that I drooled a little. All of that prosciutto! We then also saw the station of fresh pasta (their dry pasta is imported from Italy while fresh pasta is made in-house) which were appropriately arranged like the Italian flag. Of course, you should be able to see all of this too if you dined at Canaletto due to the kitchen-wide windows out to the dining room!

They are participating in Newport Beach Restaurant Week from today until the 26th so I encourage you to give them (and other participating restaurants) a visit to get the best deal! If they don't make the cut on your NBRW list, you can also check out their popular Monday-Friday Happy Hour from 4:30PM-6:30PM where pizzas, antipasti, cocktails, prosecco, and wine are only $6. Giorgio also showed us that they have a promotional "passport" program going on right now called Festa Regionale 2014 - every few weeks, a new Italian region is featured with accompanying dishes through to mid-June. Every time you try out a regional menu item, you can get a stamp; one stamp per region for all regions will grant a special commemorative plate AND qualify diners for winning a trip to Italy. How neat is that? Love it. Anyhow, our thanks go out to the staff at Canaletto for the amazing meal and to Newport Beach Restaurant Week for the opportunity to visit the restaurant.

Photography by Duc Duong. Pictures available on Facebook here.

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