The factors we hold coming back to Vessia Ristorante in Irvine (in Orange County, Calif.) are pretty straight forward.
The food, the service, the room.
It's a particular location, but not in that massive, showy, ``special occasion'' way. Vessia is casual charm, warm hospitality and reliably tasty servings.
We've shared plenty of meals right here more than the past 5 years. When my wife and I moved back to Orange County in 2000, we spent our initially New Year's Eve with pasta and piped-in Italian music. An additional night, we brought good friends, and I devoured the serpintina alla Barese ($22.50) -- thin, not- too-sweet sausage served with grilled polenta and spinach.
It seemed like the perfect location to celebrate my mother's 80th birthday, so we reserved the attached patio. A dozen of us lingered more than pastas, fresh coffee and a hazelnut cake. As a joke, I planted a tiara on my mother's head. On the way out the door plenty of hours later, our waiter, our busboy, manager Ismael Ayala and owner Franco Vessia formed a gauntlet of sorts, hugging her, kissing her hand, treating her like a queen.
We've come for even more birthdays, for a get-out-of-the- home-the-day-after-Christmas dinner, and, as a particular treat, I brought my mother in for lunch final month after a difficult doctor's appointment.
It was my initially lunch there, and it confirmed what I'd read in practically every mention of Vessia: It's a power-broker's palace by day. By profession and hobby, Mom and I are eavesdroppers, so it was a treat to be seated amongst name- droppers going on about neighborhood and state politics.
Our spying ended when our lunches arrived. Mom had a single of the specials, grigliata mista ($23.95). Generous portions of shrimp and chunks of fish lolled in a light wine and butter sauce, surrounded by spinach and artichokes. My salmon ($23.95) was grilled expertly with herbs and served with vegetables and potatoes. We could have opted for a much less high-priced lunch -- a wide array of sandwiches ($9.95) and salads ($9.25) and pastas ($9.95) -- but it was a particular meal, after all.
By nightfall, it really is a loved ones location.
The menu ranges from pizzas (from $11.50) to even more sophisticated fish and meat specials (in the mid-$20s).
One recent night I met my wife and almost 2-year-old son for dinner, but we had been filled with a bit of trepidation.
Certain, Vessia is even more casual than its white tablecloths would indicate. Still, a 2-year-old boy can test your definition of ``casual.''
Not to worry, our waiter told my wife though she waited for me to arrive. ``He'll be fine he can be himself.'' As he was, with couple of ill effects.
Our meal wasn't the top we've had right here. My cuscinetto ($19.95) -- skinless chicken breast rolled with prosciutto and asparagus stalks and topped with cheese -- was dry, as if it had been prepared as a lunch particular and sat all day. My wife's fish particular ($23.95) was grilled salmon, and it was fine, even though the lemon-caper sauce was too tart.
One miss will not stop us from coming back, and that's where the rest of the mix comes in.
You can really feel owner Franco Vessia's hand -- from time to time, rather literally -- guiding you as you step in from the frenzy of a shopping-center parking lot. (The center is undergoing considerable renovations, and the road major directly to the restaurant is temporarily closed.)
As you round the compact lobby, traverse the snappy little bar and light into a single of the earth-toned booths or tables, you look up to an open kitchen.
It's contemporary, casual, comforting. A light aroma of roasting garlic flows into the room.
``I've tried to establish a neighborhood restaurant, a location where people really feel comfy,'' Vessia stated amongst the lunch and dinner rushes earlier this week.
``We tell our people to at all times recognize the regulars, and for people who aren't regulars, treat them like they are, so they turn into a single.''
He has a couple of tricks he's picked up along a restaurateur route that started when he and his mother cooked at a compact trattoria in a Chicago suburb. Just after it closed, he worked for Hyatt, which transferred him to Los Angeles in 1981. He did even more time in corporate restaurants, at a Harry's Bar, due to the fact closed, in Century City, before eventually moving to Irvine to open Prego.
Just after a dozen years, he jumped to open his personal home in a spot where previous restaurants had mixed luck more than the years.
He and chef Gino Buonanoce worked with Vessia's mom to develop recipes to highlight Italy's regional cuisines.
He joined the Chamber of Commerce and created good friends amongst the politicians and the administrators at City Hall. He opened his bar on Mondays to let locals be ``bartender for a night'' -- the little stories and photographs on the Web site are a laugh.
He performs the room.
``I know when people go out, they want to go to a location where they really feel comfy, like they are a part of something,'' he stated.
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