Small and Inviting

Massimo Navarretta came to this country from Italy 24 years ago, a young man looking for action. He'd spent time in New York and Los Angeles, enjoying city life, and then he came to Costa Mesa, where the chef and his equally culinary brother Fernando opened Scampi on Newport Boulevard in 1988.

For a short time, Massimo left Scampi in Fernando's hands and opened a new place near South Coast Plaza. But he wasn't as happy there. He sold it and traveled back to his hometown of Naples, but “it'd become too much of a city for my taste. People are too in-your-face,” he said. So back he came to Costa Mesa, with its laid-back attitude, which seemed to meld nicely with his own mellowed spirit. He returned to Scampi, bringing with him the gregarious nature and considerable culinary skills that keep his patrons coming back for more.

It has worked on my husband and me. Small and inviting, Scampi has become a favorite of ours. Among traditional Italian fare, you'll find creations that satisfy even the pickiest eaters. And we know some picky eaters—my sister, for one, won't touch curly fries because “they're too thin,” but she'll devour seasoned fries (same thing, only no curl!). Then there's my husband, for whom I can predict with 97.8 percent accuracy (I've done the math) what he'll order in any given restaurant.

At Scampi, that would be the tortelloni Papalina, featuring the tangiest cream sauce I've ever tasted, liberal chunks of bacon and tortelloni that practically disintegrate in your mouth. Greg ordered it yet again when we took our friends Dennis and Bea to Scampi.

The Brazilian-born Daniel waits on us nearly every time we're there. I'd say we get preferential treatment, but they're pretty great to everyone, so it's hard to tell.

Bea's father was Neopolitan, and her mother was Abruzzi, so we were curious to see what someone who grew up on the stuff thought. Daniel recommended an appetizer of buffalo mozzarella encasing marscapone cheese, topped with prosciutto and served with seasoned tomatoes. I'm sure we would have discussed how lush and creamy the cheese tasted if we hadn't been too busy eating it.

Bea ordered the rigatoni with broccoli and artichoke hearts in a cream sauce, a surprisingly light and flavorful dish. Dennis' cannelloni looked wonderful, too, but I was concentrating on the almost-fluffy texture of the tuna smothered in kalmata olives, capers and tomatoes before me.

For dessert, Dennis settled on tantalizing strawberry mousse, while Greg, again, ordered his favorite: tiramisu. Fluffy and not too sweet, it's among the best I've tasted.

Over the past couple of years, we've brought nearly everyone we know there, and we've never had a complaint. My mother-in-law, a professional home economist, raved over the pollo Saracena (chicken breast smothered in a sherry sauce) for weeks. It so delighted her that she insisted we take her again, this time with a fellow member of the Home Economists Society. It got so that every time I told my husband I'd talked to his mother, his first question was, “Did she talk about the chicken?” Which might have been funny if the answer hadn't always been “yes.”

Scampi Restaurant, located at 1576 Newport Blvd. in Costa Mesa, is open Sun.-Mon., 5-10 p.m.; Tues.-thurs., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. N 5-10 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. N 5 p.m.-12:30 a.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.-12:30 a.m. (949) 645-8560. Full bar. Dinner for two, $25, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

Patrice Marsters started at OC Weekly as an intern, just before the first issue was published. She is now the associate editor of the paper, serves on the board of the Orange County Press Club, and mentors aspiring writers and editors at Newport Harbor High School. In her spare time, Ms. Marsters co-leads a multi-level Girl Scout troop, creates baked goods, and rants at inanimate objects (including her computer) about her grammatical and writing pet peeves.

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