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Restaurants & Bars 9

A Chowish New Year's Eve dinner in Santee (long)

Jim Strain | Jan 1, 200501:59 PM

A couple of months ago, acting on a review, the source of which I don’t even recall, Diana and I discovered Trattoria di IV (the IV is a Roman 4 and they pronounce it Trattoria di Quattro). The place would be easy to overlook, located as it is in a Mission Gorge Road retail strip on the far western fringe of Santee. There’s a nice painted sign with the name of the place, but more noticeable are the neon window signs attesting to Pizza, Subs, Delivery, and the phone number (596-PIZZA). The interior isn’t much more impressive, with a smallish number of informal tables and wire-framed stack chairs. The walk-up counter is where you go if you’re putting in an order to go. You’d be forgiven if you figured you were in a run-of-the-mill suburban pizza joint -- but you would be wrong.

On a typical afternoon or evening, the place is run by two women, who together will take your order, prepare your food, and serve it to you. In between times, the chef may be taking pizza orders over the phone or dispatching the delivery driver. The two women are Denise Roa and Lilliana Navarette, both classically trained chefs who enjoyed solid reputations when they labored in such fancy schmancy venues as Elario’s in La Jolla, but who evidently wanted a room of their own. So, like the old Khyber Pass Afghan restaurant which began life as Mexican short-order joint, and the long-gone Clairemont Russian place that made both bolognesa and borscht, they opted to preserve the existing customer base, and went to war with the restaurant they could afford, rather than the restaurant they might like to have (ouch!). While the printed menu is kind of routine, there’s always a white-board listing of three or four specials that are miles away from anything reminiscent of your Pappy’s Pizza Parlor.

Everything we’ve had there has been excellent quality and carefully prepared. There are two pizza menus, a traditional one, and a short list of “gourmet” pizzas. On a recent visit, Diana had a pizza of carmelized onions, brie, and (I think) pancetta, on a perfect thin and crispy Italian style crust. While we were there, we noticed a flyer advertising special dinners for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Last week, just two days before New Year’s Eve, we phoned and were told they could take us for the early (5:30) seating. We grabbed it.

We arrived in the midst of a rain shower, but the Trattoria was brightly lit and comfortably as warm as the welcoming smiles of the owners. There were a couple of families dining on pizza and three other tables occupied by folks like us who were there for the special dinner. The $45 per person charge got you a three-course dinner and a bottle of champagne for each couple.

For our first courses, Diana had the wild mushroom soup, a wonderful musky broth, full of big pieces of sliced mushrooms and topped with warm boursin cheese crouton and drizzled with truffle oil. It was one of the best mushroom soups I’ve ever tasted. I had the salad, made with big leaves of buttery bibb lettuce, topped with generous slices of ripe avocado and blood orange, and finished with a honey poppy seed dressing. Before all of it, though, our champagne arrrived, along with a basket of small, golf-ball sized rolls, each of which had a bit of kalamata olive concealed inside it. The butter was flavored with garlic. The other first-course option, which we didn’t have, was a carpaccio of beef with parmesan cheese, olive oil and arugula.

For our main courses, Di had the roasted Mucsocvy duck breast, bite-size slices of it served over baby spinach and topped with a rich huckleberry sauce that was simultaneously sweet and spicy, but low-keyed enough to perfectly compliment the flavorful duck meat. She almost passed on it because it wasn’t served with potatoes (which she adores in all their possible guises) but instead came with wild rice tossed with bits of spiced pecan. I had no idea that wild rice could taste that good. I had the grilled Atlantic seabass with risotto. The seabass was a super-sized fillet that had been sprinkled with herbs and perfectly grilled with a tarragon-tomato beurre blanc. The outside of the fish was crisp and redolant of tarragon, while the inside was moist and flaky. Beneath the fish was a mound of creamy risotto which had been tossed with small rock shrimp, and surrounded by baby artichokes -- just the thing for a chilly December night.

Dessert (billed as “Chef Roa’s surprise”) turned out to be a sinfully rich chocolate cheesecake to which a rich Latina bite of coffee had somehow been added. A generous dollop of creamy chocolate topped each piece.

If you ever venture into the wilds of East County, please give the Trattoria di IV a try. My only interest in the place is keeping them going so I can enjoy their cooking. It’s so informal it’s like eating at your Tia Lupe’s house (only two wines normally available, and served in bistro style juice glasses), but by heaven, they know how to cook.

Trattoria di IV
Lunch and dinner Tuesday thru Sunday
8011 Mission Gorge Road
Santee, CA
(619) 596-7499

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