Best Italian Restaurant
3012 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, 949-675-6262
I drive 22 miles to get to Mama D's for dinner, battling beach traffic on Pacific Coast Highway the entire way, and passing many other respectable Italian restaurants. That's how good it is.
First of all, the service there is ridiculous, which is the new way of saying outstanding. If you have to wait for a table, which is typically the case on weekend nights, they have been known to bring you magazines, bread, even meatballs. One friend told me the hostess actually came outside with blankets to put around his and his girlfriend's shoulders one chilly night.
And I've yet to get a server there who wasn't smiling, didn't ask my name and didn't seem genuinely interested in what was going on in my life that particular day.
The owner is a New York City transplant who came out years ago with Mama D and Papa D. He took up surfing, took over ma's restaurant and vowed to make customer happiness his priority, mostly by keeping his staff happy. The last time I was there he had just finished polishing all of his servers' shoes. For real.
And then there's the food.
My favorite is the pink sauce, a blend of tomato sauce and cream and Parmesan that coats the pasta. If I get the pink sauce stuck in my head, I can't shake it until I get in the car and drive to Mama D's. You can put the pink sauce on any type of pasta (or you can just drink it), but I especially like it on the angel hair.
The ravioli is also amazing: homemade ricotta or spinach and ricotta-filled pasta shells so thin they're practically translucent, taking me back to the ravioli my Aunt Toni used to make for our 10-course holiday dinners.
Whatever meal you get, it starts with a bowl of roasted garlic in olive oil and a basket of warm squares of focaccia bread to spoon it on. And every meal ends with a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie for each person at the table.
When I told the owner that he was getting the critic's choice award for Best Italian Restaurant, he replied that he knows people don't wait an hour for a meatball, they wait an hour for an experience.
- Lori Basheda, ocregister.com restaurant writer
1. Lomeli's Italian Restaurant
1000 E. Bastanchury Road, Fullerton, 714-255-9100; scheduled to move in October to 600 S. Brea
- Lomeli's makes its own meatballs, pizza crust and sauces.
- The restaurant's salad dressing is a secret recipe, but it can be bought by the bottle.
- On Christmas Eve, Lomeli's prepares at least 80 orders for takeout.
Why they're No. 1: This neighborhood restaurant's reputation was built by referral, owner Cesar Lomeli said. "I learned the trade from my brother, who opened his Lomeli's Italian Restaurant in 1978 in Gardena," he said. "My wife and I opened the Fullerton restaurant with next to nothing and have built a loyal clientele because the food is always fresh and the service is excellent." Lomeli's recipes are not shared, and the restaurant doesn't cater, but it does prepare party trays for special events.
Claim to fame: At Lomeli's you get a lot of food and every complete dinner comes with either Minestrone soup or salad, garlic bread, ice cream and a complimentary glass of house wine for customers over 21. Pizza for pickup is a big seller. "People come from work, but families are welcome," Lomeli said. "A children's menu has meals that offer soup, salad, garlic bread and ice cream."
Fan favorite: "The food is fresh, and the service is excellent. When my husband would pick it up, the owner would greet him by his first name and tell him the pizza would be out in a few minutes. It's a very popular place and it's great because it's a neighborhood business, not a chain, and their quality is excellent." – Peggy Tucker, Fullerton
Fun fact: Pepperoni is the most popular pizza, and Lomeli's sells about 30 per day. Takeout accounts for 35 percent of the pizzas Lomeli's sells.
– Lois Rothschild
2. Cosmo's Italian Kitchen
23411 Aliso Viejo Parkway #A, Aliso Viejo, 949-448-9040
28562 Oso Parkway, Las Flores, 949-216-9029
- The Cosmos' "I'm a Star" program offers certificates to local elementary schools, and teachers give them out for academic achievement or good behavior.
- The South Orange County Regional Chambers of Commerce recognized Cosmo's as the 2009 Small Business of the Year.
Claim to fame: "Everything here is homemade and made from scratch, and customers know that," said Dick Fisher, co-owner with Bob Quinn of Cosmo's Italian Kitchen. "Sauces are made daily, breads are baked here, and we have wonderful specials with fresh fish at a great value. Food is basic, but special, and there's plenty of it." Cosmo's represents a way of life, they said. "It's a family, it's not just a job or a business," Fisher said. Homemade pastas and specialty items are the most popular orders, including meat lasagna and seafood. The two restaurants also host special theme nights like "Noodle Night" and "The Sunday Night Spaghetti Feast."
Fan favorite: "The food at Cosmo's is of good quality. The atmosphere is comforting, with prompt service, and they have a good vegetarian lasagna. There are photos of celebrities at Cosmo's on the wall, and we get dinners for takeout, too. I bring it in for lunch for everyone at work." -- Leslie Dowd, Mission Viejo
Fun fact: Be a "Paisano," meaning "coming from the same place" in Italian. Cosmo's welcomes its customers to The Paisano Club to keep up with all the restaurant's happenings, from holiday feasts to charitable events. Members get free entrees on their birthday and free wine when they join and on their anniversary.
– Lois Rothschild
Aliso Viejo, Foothill Ranch, Irvine, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo; Corporate: 949-951-2879.
- Mondays through Thursdays owner Joe Moscatiello offers an "all you can eat" menu with six pasta entrees, eight sauces and salad.
Claim to fame: Since opening in 1984, Peppino's has been a family affair. Founder Joe Moscatiello served as chef using lessons he'd learned from years watching his mother cook. Other family members helped out as waitresses and dishwasher. Since then, Peppino's has grown into five restaurants throughout the county. It's a toss-up about the most popular entrees: lasagna or pizza, said Cheryl Ludden, restaurant spokeswoman. Sauces for both are made fresh at each restaurant. "Special creations include Stromboli, which is a pizza roll made with thin pastry and filled with cheese, onion, peppers, salami and pepperoni, and served with meat sauce," Ludden said. "Lina rolls are fresh dough filled with spinach and eggplant with cheese and served with marinara sauce."
Fan favorite: "Peppino's has authentic Italian food. I'm Italian, and I never get a bad meal there. The pizza, the sandwiches with peppers, all good, and you never lack for service. It's homestyle Italian food, and I've been eating there since 1985." – Tony Marino, Irvine
Fun fact: Moscatiello named the restaurant for the childhood name his mother called him. Peppino means Little Joe in Italian.
– Lois Rothschild