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Let's eat.

From Big Sur's killer cliff-clinging eateries to Salinas' unparalleled produce, this blog aims to sniff out all things Monterey County can stomach, via picture and prose, curiosity and appetite, hand and mouth.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Alberto's Celebrity-Quality Italian Crowns P.G.

Richard Nixon and I never had much in common. With the help of one of the most memorable personalities in Pagrovia, that has changed.

The other night at Alberto's (373-3993) at the top of Forest Hill, Alberto Bonatelli made a pal and I the same veal scallopini piccata he prepped for ol' Tricky Dick.

As guilty pleasures go, this might be one of the most pleasurable. I now get what a friend who grew up in P.G. meant when she told me it's the best she's had, stateside or in Italy.

Plenty came along with the piccata. Like imported Chianti light enough to counterbalance rich ravioli carbonara worth writing the Old World about. And a chicken saltimboca up to the name. And a caprese salad with a nice proscuitto-cheese twist.

And homemade basil-cello was as good as it sounds.

And tiramasu, moist and chocolatey in all the right ways, enough to meet a high challenge—namely, delivering a closing taste potent enough to appropriately punctuate such a strong sequence of flavors.

But that's only part of what Bonatelli dishes out. After he pulled a chair up to our table, turned it backwards and slid into it like a gun into a holster—"This is my home," he replied to my amazement at how well he fit in it—he proceeded to drop more names than the Yellowpages.

He and his Orsini Restaurant were the darling of California’ cushiest bit of coastline, Malibu (nouth of Santa Monica), for the '80s and then some, and he came away with waves of raves and stories. Late nights with Frank Sinatra. Rubbing aprons with Nixon and a number of other heads of state. Neil Diamond's affection for his veal parmesan. In between glory stories he'd dash away to the nearby intimate kitchen and return with more riches and snuggle right up to our table.

Check out this article (click on it to make it bigger) for a taste of his celebrity cred/obsession:

Lightly legendary local food expert Ray Napolitano, my Weekly colleague going on about half a decade, is the one who mandated I visit. I asked him what he thinks differentiates Bonatelli.

"What you get there is him cooking," he says. "Really that's what it boils down to. There's something about the way he puts food together. It's not like recipes are out of this world—they're mostly standard. That's what it's about: I've always felt like you could give 10 people the same ingredients, equipment and nine of them will taste similar and one won't. It's an art. He's an artist. He is [literally] an artist too, he paints and everything else. [Bonatelli does the funky murals that adorn the walls of his one-room restaurant.]

"When guys like him do something it's an art form. It's inexplicable. Doesn't look like he's doing anything different. When he cooks, especially when he's inspired, he simply does an amazing job. The first time I walked in there, I ordered linguini putanesca, a simple dish with four powerful ingredients that can screw it up if unbalanced. I was like s***, this is amazing."

For my part, as I left for a starlight hike through neighboring Del Monte Forest to dent the small innertube that had migrated to my midsection over the last couple of hours, I couldn't resist thinking Alberto's has a legitimate claim to the best-Italian-in-town crown. Joe Rombi’s (373-2416) deserves a nomination, but is a little fancier and spendier. Peppoli (647-7500) is incredible but even more expensive, even by Pebble Beach standards. Gino’s (422-1814) is an institution that deservedly earns our readers' best Italian food vote, but it deploys a different, spaghetti-and-pizza, more family-centered style. Cantinetta Luca (625-6500) does modern-hip Italian with aplomb, but tends more toward Cali-Itali fusion than classic fare.

Why doesn't he get more traffic, then? Maybe because it’s tucked into a strip mall. Maybe because he relies on word of mouth. Maybe some would prefer less forward hospitality. I won't linger too long on those queries—besides, the restaurant community certainly are aware of him, as are locals in the know—because I'm happy to keep it our little secret. I know Tricky Dick is good at that.