Thursday, July 10, 2008
The major player has changed his game. John Pisto, arguably the most famous chef in the county and undoubtedly one of its strongest personalities, recently downsized his dynasty.
Last summer, the TV-show chef sold off Abalonetti’s to the Gilbert family that owns Crabby Jim’s and Gilbert’s on the Wharf; his landmark joint Domenico’s went to the Mercurios, Dominic and Sam, who own Cafe Fina. At one point, he had Cannery Row’s Blue Moon on the market, then reversed course and decided to reinvent it as Trattoria Paradiso (its original name) in March with the help of his daughter, Gia.
The title hints at the back-to-the-boot direction Pisto has taken the restaurant, focusing on traditional Italian winners that are both proven crowd pleasers and dishes he does well.
Starters include classics like Prosciutto de Parma con Melon ($9.95) and Sicilian-style sardines ($9.95); the entrées include a recommended Fritto Misto with fried and crispy shrimp, fish, scallops, calamari and fries ($19.95), Cioppino ($25.95), Pork Chop Milanese ($22.95) and “Pisto Family Favorites Pastas” including Spaghetti, Meat Balls and Italian Sausage ($17.50, called “J.P.’s Sunday best!”) and Classic Clams Linguine ($21.50). The prices are expensive, but the location is princely.
At lunch a colleague and I ordered a pair of draft Anchor Steams ($4.50/each), though a bottle from their list of 60, dominated by Chardonnays and “Unique Whites” (most in the $25-$50 range) would’ve worked well too– or a glass from a list of 18 choices ($5 Fetzer to $11 Scheid). Then, with appropriate volume levels, we ordered the two items on the lunch menu listed with exclamation points: Shrimp Stuffed with Crab (“Our house special!” $19.95)– which we promptly swapped out for the special of the day at our server’s suggestion, Salmon Stuffed with Crab, $22.95– and the Polenta Tower (“Vegetarian!” $15.50). Besides the fact that our windows were one of the few along the coast wall painted shut, our table was one worthy of the restaurant’s name, overlooking a sparkling sea and a beach where a tangle of adolescent summer campers frolicked around like remedial sea lions. The calamari starter came free (thanks to a sidewalk coupon distributed in front) but bready and in need of more spice and lemon.
The salmon (farmed in Nova Scotia) was tender and flavorful with a hollandaise on top; together the rich sauce and rich fish drowned out the thin layer of creamy, fresh crab in the middle. The two-inch tower of polenta (three layers), grilled peppers, zucchini, tomato and onion, enjoyed an attractive pair of sauces, each filling precisely half the plate– a watery white sauce and a robust red marinara– that mixed beautifully. Meanwhile, the texture of the polenta was right and the pecorino cheese was tasty, but the dish didn’t quite deliver enough excitement to warrant the price (or the punctuation).
Though I have it on good authority that the burgers here are excellent, on two other visits I stuck to the “sustainable” list of nine seafood dishes. Rather than stomach a Styrofoam take-out box, I dined at a raised table in the 20-seat bar area– where happy hour (including $4 well drinks, $3 bud drafts, $2 bay shrimp cocktails) happens almost always (they say they only pull it if it gets really busy by 7pm) and a nice flat-screen TV hangs on the wall. I tabbed the sand dabs ($18.95) over the halibut ($24.50) and petrale sole ($21.50); each fish on the list comes with a twist of buttery linguini marinara and some thin green beans, which were both flavorful with a good amount of garlic. The three small dab filets were disappear-quick delicious thanks to a nice crispy breading, minimal oiliness and a lemony cream sauce with the right nip of salt.
On another expedition I tried the halibut and the bartender-recommended cheese raviolis ($14.95). The fish was fresh and flavorful, with just enough tarragon-butter-wine sauce to let the pride of the Pacific filet shine (though a little lemon would’ve been great here too). Meanwhile, the little fresh ricotta raviolis, bathed in a homemade red sauce bolstered by fresh garlic and basil, were great.
Unfortunately, with Pisto’s sustainable fish, there’s a catch, so to speak. While he touts them as ocean friendly, he isn’t on any of the Seafood Watch partnership lists because he applies the more malleable industry definitions, which, as SW’s Sheila Bowman says, is a lot like “asking someone to correct their own homework.”
Fortunately, Pisto does his homework on flavor, and his latest assignment gives an increasingly attractive Cannery Row a touch more culinary extra credit.
TRATTORIA PARADISO 654 Cannery Row, Monterey. 11am-9pm daily. • 375-4155.