Just north of the Del Mar Racetrack and Del Mar’s west-facing sea cliffs sits Parioli’s, an Italian Bistro run by two brothers, Antonio and Piero Tarantino. With Antonio as Chef and Piero as Maitre D’, they have been serving fine Sicilian cuisine since 1997, using the finest ingredients available to complete their generational recipes.
From Via De La Valle, turn right onto South Highway 101, and Parioli’s will be instantly visible on the right side of the street. When there is a heavy marine layer, the outside looks warm and inviting. When weather is warmer, it seems the perfect spot to enjoy a martini and breathe in the Pacific air.
As soon as you walk through Parioli’s craftsman-style doors, a dimly lit bar of polished wood faces you. A wall-size mirror makes the bar look twice as long and inviting, but a mural of the Italian countryside provides the real trompe l’oeil. The feeling is cozy but sophisticated, European but California. Martini and wine glasses hang from the bar encircled with pendant lights. Behind the bartender—on the evening of our visit it was Piero—is a window with a view of potted plants. While the bar is inviting, the sounds and scents from the nearby kitchen made us curious: sizzles, animated dialects, and the scent of lemon, garlic, and grilled meats.
My husband and I sat down to a table under paintings for sale by local artists. The restaurant had only tables, simply dressed in classic white. In one corner of the restaurant, a tile mosaic depicted what I interpreted as a scene from a pastoral village. Yet what I enjoyed most was the espresso brown paint of the restaurant and white bead boards. It was like being in a cup of espresso as we ate—pure warmth and tradition. Not to be missed is the brick fireplace that can be seen from almost anywhere in the restaurant. But don’t let the fireplace sway you into thinking this is strictly a place for couples. Parioli’s could be a date setting, a family gathering, a rehearsal dinner, or a place to come after you walk the dogs at the beach on a Sunday (they have patios – read on).
Our server John brought us poppy-seed bread; I would call it an Italian baguette. The baked-in-house, sliced-on-the-bias bread was served to us in a stylish silver vessel, an urbane bread basket. More impressive was the dipping sauce for the bread. At first glance it looked like a simple balsamic vinegar/olive oil blend, but it was actually closer to a caponata. I asked our server what was in it and all I heard was “lots of garlic, the chef, he likes garlic.” There was indeed a lot of garlic in the caponata-style dipping sauce but what I detected mostly was a marriage of finely diced, well-marinated vegetables. We finished this immediately, and hurried on to the appetizers.
I picked out what I wanted from the menu right away: the Marinated Octopus. I believe octopus should grace more menus than just those of sushi restaurants. That said, octopus must be cooked attentively so as not to be chewy. Parioli’s does octopus right. This appetizer passed the chewy test – the octopus was cooked perfectly, marinated in the right ratio of vinegar and oil, and was tossed with diced, mellow celery. The appetizer was served with salad greens and a lemon wedge on a green glass platter.
We also ordered the Iron Skillet Sautéed Mussels. The mussels came to us in a tomato broth that was unparalleled during our dinner. Sea-salty but not overpowering, the tomato broth surrounding the mussels tasted like the ocean meeting the harvest with large pieces of fresh tomatoes nestled into the open shells. Herbaceous broth and drops of high quality olive oil glistened inside the white bowl. The mussels were served all face up, greeting-style.
Before our second course, Mediterranean Tomato and Olives Salad, arrived, I perused the entire establishment. In the back of Parioli’s is a secluded, indoor room that could accommodate private events. By a wall filled with black-and-white photos of Sophia Loren is a nearby door that leads to the patio. I walked outside and noticed an above the ground fire pit beneath a television showing - what else in a restaurant run by Italians - soccer. Walk a little further away from the restaurant (I was surprised at how deep the property went) and you will see a large movie screen at the head of several rectangular tables. On Wednesday nights, foreign movies are shown with subtitles, and any bottle of wine off the menu is half-price.
I returned to the Mediterranean Tomato and Olive Salad waiting for me at my table. The salad featured green and black olives, sweet rings of marinated onion, and meaty tomato, tossed with olive oil and balsamic dressing. This dish reminded why Mediterranean cuisine is so admired – it is as good for you as it is simply delicious.
At that point, I knew I would be back. But I would not return only with my husband - seated in front of the fireplace was a family of four. Sitting behind us was a group of people discussing their start-up company. Parioli’s is appropriate for all diners. I noticed that no one spoke much once their food was served. Parioli’s seems to put their patrons into an eating trance.
The Artichoke Lasagna did that to me. I know of only one Italian restaurant matriarch who does artichoke lasagna, and only special ordered. Parioli’s has a phenomenal version of artichoke lasagna on their everyday menu. How does food get better than combining artichoke hearts and lasagna? The menu’s description pairs the lasagna with béchamel, but when served, the lasagna is surrounded on all four sides by a smooth but chunky tomato sauce. I tasted cheese in every bite, and didn’t have to chase it with my palate or my fork. With the bright flavor of the tomato sauce and the creaminess of the béchamel, the artichoke lasagna provided the best of both worlds. The artichoke inside the lasagna was tender, plentiful, and earthy. Vegetarian but hearty, this baked pasta dish delivered.
My husband ordered the Filet Mignon. It was grilled and perfected with a red wine reduction. The reduction had a vibrant color and a fruity depth. The knife cut easily through the tender meat, and there was ample sauce to drape each bite through the reduction. Next t the filet was a mound of airy but creamy potatoes. Sautéed broccolini, spinach, and sliced garlic graced the filet and potatoes, and it was hard to decide which item was the real star because the vegetables were fantastic. The garlic, clearly beloved by the chef, was not overwhelming but friendly. The spinach I believed to be a whole leaf just moments ago before entering the pan to be cooked. The broccolini was tender and sugary. I ate all of the vegetables off my husband’s plate unapologetically. This meat-potatoes-green-vegetable dish was the opposite of the same old thing. It had an Italian spin but everything about it was tastefully familiar.
The wine list has a column devoted to just reds. Reds from as diverse locations as Israel, Chile, and Puglia; however, we stayed in California (Monterey). With Brunello di Montalcino half price during subtitled movies, can you blame us? You may bring your own wine and be charged a corkage of $15.00.
The desserts are all made in house. There are gelatos to choose from, vanilla bean crème brûlée, and Frangelico chocolate mousse, but I ordered the tiramisu because I like to see how it varies from restaurant to restaurant. It is almost like doing a geographical interview. Parioli’s tiramisu had ladyfingers that maintained their spongy-texture. The mascarpone cream was sweet but light. The cocoa powder dusting at the top was sable colored, and everything else about the dessert was a mystery except the fact that it was deeply satisfying.
On our way out, we talked with one of the founding brothers, Antonio. He was standing at the bar with a Frenchman. I was not surprised to find other Europeans here – al fresco dining encouraged, basics like bread infused with home-made pride, seafood and vegetables hailed like royalty – and I can’t wait to go back for the Cioppino Bucket. According to their website (www.parioliitalianbistro.com), it is their best seller.
There is something about the way seafood and vegetables are cooked together that only Mediterraneans can capture. Or maybe I am charmed by the reverence shown in the Penne Pasta with Eggplant, Marinara Sauce, Basil & Cheese named after “Mama.” At Parioli’s Italian Bistro, rustic meets refined. With such care taken in all characteristics of the meal, it’s deliciously apparent that at Parioli’s, no generations-old stone is left unturned.
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