Honor in Excess
Joe Rombi’s delicious and indulgent fare works just right.
Thursday, June 23, 2005
Goethe once wisely insisted, “To be pleased with one’s limits is a wretched state.” The guy would’ve loved Joe Rombi’s Veal Marsala, a study in savory tenderness that leaves the typical limits of caloric intake behind. In fact, Goethe and Siddhartha (during his indulgent phase) would’ve loved everything about the cozy, crisp Pacific Grove fixture that is Joe Rombi’s mia cucina. Joe, his wife Laurie, and their staff have forged one of the most loyal client bases on the Peninsula by redefining the limits of the restaurant experience for a decade.
Seemingly limitless flavor flows from simple, time-honored ingredients like ultra-fresh meats, pastas, and produce. Laurie says the popularity of their plates is due to Italian tradition.
“We don’t think of ourselves as culinary geniuses,” she says, “it’s mostly what Joe’s mother taught him.”
The philosophy is simple: offer personable, attentive service and a well-rounded meal. It’s working. Joe estimates 85 percent of his customers are chronic clients. (Read: Get a reservation.)
Upon arrival for an appetizer outing with my culinary sidekick Alexandra, we find our server Keigan equal parts charm and knowledge.
His drizzles of balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper provide balance to the smooth mozzarella cheese and tangy basil of our Tomato Caprese salad ($7.95). His delicate spoonfuls of fresh parmesan make the Half Moon Crab Raviolis ($9.95)—pillowy homemade pasta pouches filled with sweet rock crab, ricotta cheese and pesto in an expertly reduced cream sauce—even better.
By the time we savor our way through Arancini ($9.50), racket ball shaped delicacies of onions, Italian sausage, procuitto, green peas, and mozzarella wrapped in rice, hyper-quick fried, and delivered wading in tomato pesto, our “appetizing” meal—fortified by the bruschetta and freshly-baked foccacia—has us satisfied.
I nod toward the Rombis eating at a nearby table and ask what Joe’s having.
“It’s the best thing we have,” Keigan smiles, speaking tale of a Veal Marsala. “Have it when you come back.”
He’s not expecting me back so soon, with a group including Paula Crivello of Pacific Grove, who once waited tables at the same place where a young Joe Rombi washed dishes.
The Alaskan Halibut ($22.95) special seizes Paula’s attention. The seductive Veal Saltimbocca special, layered with sage and mozzarella and wrapped in imported Danielle procuitto, almost distracts me from my destiny: Marsala.
Before the main dish hits the table, a soup and salad prelude and a swirl of efficient service ensue. The soup is a satisfying split pea and the house salad is nicely dressed with a blue cheese-oil and vinegar blend.
Meanwhile, a recommended bottle of Kunde Sonoma Valley Cabernet ($33) prepares our palates for lift off.
The Veal Marsala ($22.95) defies, well, the limits of description. The pounded-thin white veal lavishes me with its rich butter and sweet Marsala wine complexity. With the delicately sautéed baby cremini mushrooms spiking the sauce, it’s enough to make a customer feel complete.
Or close. A refreshing chunk of red beet, sautéed asparagus and the most savory side going—orzo!—make it official.
Paula’s halibut is light, very fresh and not overly flavored, its texture a testimony to the cool northern waters’ power to lock moisture in and the house’s prep process (grill, pause, bake) to keep it there. A sautéed team of spinach, tomato, green onion, cremini mushrooms and artichoke hearts give each bite unique flavor.
As we approach the limit between indulgence and gluttony with a surprisingly light Tiramisu served in a long-stemmed wine glass, we reflect upon Joe’s most recent limit-stretching strategy. La piccola casa is an idyllic little Victorian a door up on 17th Street, where parties of up to 55 move through its quaint spaces sampling wine and fine food and Rombi’s addicts can take out the same flavorful fare as next door.
A week later, I pick up crab cakes ($6 each) and Portabella Mushroom Raviolis ($6 per bag), cook ‘em up with a little coaching from Joe, and knock the bibs off a Father’s Day party.
With Joe’s blessing, I claim responsibility for the
well-balanced cakes and rewarding raviolis. The party looks
suspicious that I would cook mushrooms in butter and garlic
and Marsala until there is no juice left, mince them and add
ricotta cheese and fresh pesto for a supremely creamy effect,
and somehow pinch them into pasta pockets. I just say I wasn’t
pleased with my former limits in the kitchen.
JOE ROMBI’S LA MIA CUCINA
208 17th St., Pacific Grove | 373-2416
JOE ROMBI’S LA PICCOLO CASA
212 17th St., Pacific Grove | 373-8116