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REVIEW: Illiano's, Tustin


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REVIEW: Illiano's, Tustin

Das Ubergeek | Oct 11, 2009 09:12 PM

(Original post at

Let me explain about the Foodie Drive of Shame.

One of the hazards of the search for great food is that you may have a bad meal, and my definition of a bad meal is one after which I drive home running down the catalogue of better options for dinner and berating myself mentally for having wasted a meal. Add to this that the traffic lights can sense a Foodie Drive of Shame and turn red, thus prolonging the agony.

A bad meal isn’t necessarily a terrible meal, or an unsalvageable meal. Bad meals might even have good components, but if I do the Foodie Drive of Shame, it’s been a bad meal.

And so tonight I did the Foodie Drive of Shame home from Tustin, a town so ridiculously overrepresented in GOOD food for its population that it’s natural to think that everything these must be at least good. I mean, this is the home of Haveli and Zon Baguettes and Kean Coffee and Maki Zushi and, until recently, Tropika, and it’s where you go for Dosa Place and Zov’s and Taco Rosa and Black Sheep Bistro.

I had been out at REI buying the last couple of items I needed for this weekend’s BikeMS ride from Irvine to San Diego, and I decided that since I’m going to expend 20,000 calories in the next two days dodging SUV moms in Laguna Beach who are more interested in looking for Starbucks than for people on bicycles, I would have dinner out and eat what I wanted to.

As I drove through Tustin, intending to go to Zov’s to see if the reports I’d heard about a change in quality were true, I was excited to see a place on First and Newport called Illiano’s, because Illiano’s is a small chain of much better-than-average Italian-American joints in southern Connecticut. (This Illiano’s is not related. When I called the Illiano’s in Middletown to ask, the guy said, and I quote, “California? What the hell would we be doing in California? We’re busy, you gonna order food or not?”)

It was busy — usually a good sign — and looked nice, not hole-in-the-wall, not too fancy, and most importantly, it had an open parking spot right next to it. It smelled good, too, that garlicky Italian-American restaurant that brings me back to my childhood in New Jersey.

And so I sat and I asked the server what he would order, and after we dispensed with the cioppino (I didn’t want that much food), he said that of the actual meat dishes, he liked the chicken saltimbocca best.

“Not the veal?” I asked

“No… I like the chicken better.”

And so I ordered chicken saltimbocca, but asked if I could have vegetables instead of pasta. I like having vegetables with my meals, what can I say?

(SIDE RANT #1: What is it about Italian-American restaurants and vegetables? The vast majority of the diet in Italy is starch and vegetables. Every single Italian-American I know — and being from New Jersey, I know a lot of Italian-Americans — was served a lot of vegetables as a kid, including vegetables that seemed normal to me until I moved away, like broccoli rabe and artichokes. So why on earth is it that the only vegetables that appear in an Italian-American restaurant are those steamed coins of carrots and suchlike that you get at banquets, or pizza toppings?)

Back to the story at hand, I looked longingly at the note next to the pasta that advertised side dishes of rapini or escarole, both of which I absolutely love, and asked what the vegetables on offer were tonight.

“Carrots, I think.”

Carrots? CARROTS? The last carrots I had that made me think of anything other than middle-school lunchrooms were my grandmother’s, because she made them agrodolce, with fresh orange juice, vinegar and a little tiny bit of brown sugar to take the edge off the vinegar.

“Anything else? Some rapini, maybe, or escarole?”

“Let me check with the kitchen.”

The server returned with my wine — a generous pour — and the news that the kitchen could, in fact, serve me zucchini and carrots. Faced with the sting of herbaceous defeat, I chose the zucchini alone.

“OK, chicken saltimbocca, with zucchini, no carrots, and a glass of Sangiovese. Would you like soup or salad?”


Now, I asked specifically whether the salad dressing was homemade and I was assured that it was. And so, after due course (about twenty minutes), out came a salad, mixed “normal” lettuces (as opposed to mesclun and other yuppie weeds), decent tomatoes, a couple of slices of cucumber… and balsamic vinaigrette.

(SIDE RANT #2: Let me just say that I don’t possess the wordsmithing ability to properly convey how tired I am of so-called “balsamic” vinaigrette. I like balsamic vinegar — when it’s actually aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, or in other words, the real. 99.9% or more of the crap sold as balsamic vinegar in this country is red wine vinegar with caramel colour and some kind of processed sugar — real sugar on the high end, and industrial high-fructose corn syrup on the low end. At $120 per 100 mL you are not going to use it for vinaigrette. But yet, every restaurant in Los Angeles has “discovered” it and so it has just about supplanted actual vinaigrette.)

I have, therefore, eaten enough balsamic vinaigrette to be able to judge fairly accurately its provenance, and while I can’t say for sure unless I take a tour of the kitchen, I strongly suspect that the sweet liquid on my lettuce originated in a gallon jug with a distributor’s label on it and not from discrete ingredients made in a bowl in the restaurant’s kitchen. It tasted an awful lot like balsamic vinaigrette that you get in places where it is well-known that the dressings are bought in.

Now, if they had said no, it’s bought in, I still would have had the salad, and I would have made a wistful note about how wonderful it would be to find places that take the time to make their own salad dressing, and that would have been an end to it. But they said it was homemade, and I strongly suspect it wasn’t, which would mean that I had been lied to.

The sauce on the side (har de har har), I will say that the salad was quite good. The lettuce was fresh, the plate was chilled, the cucumbers were recently-sliced (old sliced cucumbers get that wooden look, and if you think I didn’t turn them over on my plate looking for the signs of wear, you don’t know me well enough), the onion was cut thickly enough to be noticeable but thinly enough to play nicely, and — miracle of miracles — the salad was not overdressed.

About five minutes after I finished the salad, the bread arrived. Cold. Stone cold. One piece of fluffy white bun — cold — with marinara sauce — also cold — on it and one piece of fluffy white bun — cold — with no sauce on it. I ate the bread because I was by this point starving hungry and would have eaten nearly anything. Let me be charitable and call my reaction “nonplussed”.

And then, dear readers, the saltimbocca arrived.

Saltimbocca, for those of you who don’t know, is a dish made of veal or chicken pounded flat, sauteed in butter and oil, and then covered with sage leaves and finally a piece of prosciutto, dressed with a gravy made of Marsala wine and stock, and sometimes you’ll get some capers too. Though it is made from salty ingredients, the word saltimbocca has nothing to do with salt — it means “jump in the mouth”.

This saltimbocca, however, seemed to be made of chicken, ham and a salt lick.

I tasted the chicken — tender, nicely cooked, not turned into chicken jerky like so many scaloppini. Somebody on the sauté station knows how to cook — this is a good thing. The ham was good — most probably domestic, but good — another good thing. But the sauce — the sauce was so salty that it completely and utterly ruined the entire dish. This is an impressive feat for a third of a cup of gravy.

It may or may not have had Marsala in it, but it was made principally of reduced beef broth — and I don’t mean reduced-sodium beef broth either. It tasted like a bouillon cube. It tasted like beef Cup O’ Noodles boiled too long in the microwave. I literally couldn’t eat it. I took a bite and I laid my fork and knife in the “I’m finished” position and gently tried to catch my server’s attention. Three times he passed by, delivering salads and taking orders. The manager finally noticed and came over and asked if everything was okay.

“No, I’m sorry. This is unbelievably salty.”

“Well, sir, it’s a salty dish. It’s the prosciutto, you know.”

“It is most definitely not the prosciutto. It’s the sauce. It is inedible.”

He took the food away and he must have dressed down the server (which made me feel terrible, because it wasn’t like he was lounging in the corner while I gasped for water), because the server came back and asked if I’d like something else instead.

I decided to order penne arrabbiata instead. While I waited, the manager returned and tried to explain why the sauce was supposed to be salty. “He doesn’t salt the sauce, sir. It’s just naturally salty. It’s the beef broth [see, I told you so!] and Marsala, sir. It makes it very salty.”

I had had quite enough of the excuses and said, “I’ve never had salty Marsala. And I don’t understand the use of beef broth in a chicken dish. But it’s gone now and I’m looking forward to the pasta, because I’m very hungry.”

The penne arrived at just that moment and I tucked in like a shipwrecked man rescued by a floating trattoria. While the pasta was not anything special, the arrabbiata sauce was really very good. Spicy but not overwhelmingly so, with a good tomato, olive oil and garlic base and a consistent texture. When the server came to apologise about the saltimbocca for the fifth time, I firmly stopped him mid-sentence and praised the arrabbiata.

(SIDE RANT #3: Why on God’s green earth do some Italian-American restaurants serve a plate of cooked pasta, dry, with a pile of sauce in the middle? It can’t be because it looks good — it doesn’t — and it certainly isn’t how any Italian restaurant in Italy serves it. The point of cooking pasta al dente in the first place is because you’re going to finish cooking it in the sauce, so that the pasta can absorb some of the flavour of the sauce and arrive at the table with the absolute perfect texture. You might, occasionally, see pasta served where they bring the pasta and the sauce to the table separately and finish it tableside — especially for sauces like pesto which suffer if cooked — but a plate of dry, congealing pasta with a pond of sauce in the centre is just a horrible idea.)

One note only about the wine, because I am absolutely the biggest wine fraud in foodbloggerdom and know next to nil about wine — it was slightly tannic and overwhelming by itself but it went absolutely, 100% perfectly with the arrabbiata sauce. I have, of course, lost the receipt in the shuffle of the weekend planning, but it’s the only Sangiovese on the menu that’s available by the glass.

Service was mostly good, with a couple of odd things that could be trained out of the staff. Other groups had olive oil and vinegar with their bread. I did not. Other groups got water upon being seated. I did not. The staff were extremely gracious about the contretemps with the saltimbocca and replaced it without any conflict, but I wish the topic had died when the plate was taken away. The bread needs to come with the salad, not five minutes after the salad is gone, and the pepper service could have been done more gracefully. (I was asked if I wanted pepper, but then he realised he didn’t have the mill and had two other salads to deliver first. It took a little time to get the pepper, though.) The server brought a new fork for my saltimbocca but forgot about a fork with the pasta, though he returned immediately with a fork after a gentle reminder.

My biggest single problem was that it took so long to get any food. Honestly, twenty minutes to get a salad? Thirty to get bread? This needs to happen faster, even when the restaurant is busy.

Prices were acceptable for the level of Italian-American restaurant it is — my pasta was $11, the saltimbocca (which was removed from the bill without any need for me to say anything) was $16.

I wanted to like this place. I wanted this to be the sleeper Italian-American hit in a town known amongst the foodie community as a haven of deliciousness. It just wasn’t. I can get penne arrabbiata the equal of Illiano’s in a number of places. Getting a good mixed green salad is not difficult.

And so I drove home down 17th Street and Tustin Avenue looking (futilely, I might add) for dessert, and just generally being sad.

Illiano’s Ristorante and Pizzeria
651 E. 1st St.
Tustin, CA 92780
(714) 730-2665

Illiano's Ristorante & Pizzeria
651 E 1st St, Tustin, CA 92780

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