Anyone who cooks risotto knows it can’t be rushed. More than any other rice dish, it requires patience and diligence. The rice needs to be stirred and stirred until the grains accept the ladles of broth poured in little by little. Just as important to the process is to know when to stop stirring, when to stop cooking. If all the protocols are followed, the results can be glorious. The rice should surrender its starches into the broth, thickening it and transforming it into a velvety sauce. And then there are the rice grains themselves, which should be fully cooked, not mushy. When you bite into one, it needs to have the same al dente-ness of properly done pasta.
The chefs at Taverna—the new Laguna Beach branch of an Italian chain that operates a handful of restaurants in Texas and Vegas—seem to possess the Zen level of patience required to make risotto their specialty. In fact, it’s the first restaurant in Orange County to dub itself not just a pizzeria, but also a “risotteria.” As such, it’s important to pay attention to the risottos here.
The menu has just four risottos, including one with wild mushrooms, another with shrimp and prosecco. The cheapest version on the list, the risotto con burrata, is also the most basic: risotto stripped to its foundations. In this dish, more than the others, the grains are as translucent as pearls, suspended in the gravy they helped to create. There are bits of tomato for acidity, a fleck of oven-crisped prosciutto for saltiness, and a gob of melting burrata cheese for richness. But when you eat it, it’s the creaminess and lusciousness of the rice that bubbles to the top. Paradoxically, it’s also a light dish. This is the risotto you want to eat during an early-summer weekend brunch on the patio, next to a gurgling fountain and with a view of beach volleyball. Even if you’re not one to eat something so starchy so early in the morning, you should get it above all else, shunning the traditional brunch menu that has a Benedict and French toast among them. Or perhaps consider the ultra-rich polenta shrimp and grits with Cheddar and bacon, which would please a Northern Italian and an American Southerner simultaneously.
If you’re coming during the evening to marvel at the space that used to be the lobby of Laguna Federal Savings and Loan, the best risotto to have is the al frutti di mare. It’s so chock-full of precisely cooked shrimp, calamari, clams and mussels it borders on bouillabaisse. Above all the others, this risotto also tastes the tangiest. Imagine the richest mac and cheese, but with bits of firm, chewy rice instead of the pasta. Though Taverna’s chefs employ carnaroli rice instead of the more common arborio for all their risottos, it’s in this dish in particular that the varietal’s higher starch content best demonstrates its powers. Nearly half the bowl’s bulk consists of the rich, velvety sauce produced from slow-cooking the rice. Since it’s reminiscent of cream, you almost need a spoon to eat it.
After you’ve fully explored the risottos, move on to equally wonderful pizzas. The pies here exist in the sweet spot somewhere between New York-style and the now-familiar Naples-style that every other Italian joint in Orange County produces. As with a New York slice, Taverna’s dough is shaped circular and flat save for the usual bump of the outer edge. But within this circumference, there’s just a touch of the rustic that’s the hallmark of the best Naples-style pies. The Napoletana, with salt-bursting anchovies, is particularly great: The toppings on it are so perfectly proportioned and the crust so perfectly baked that every bite is the same as the last.
There are also plenty of pastas here, all homemade and served in enormous portions. A whole wheat spaghetti—which tastes as pure and wholesome as Japanese soba noodles—comes with not only four billiards-sized turkey meatballs that constitute a meal unto themselves, but also enough pasta to feed a small family of Sicilians. On any random evening, you’ll see most customers ordering this dish and other pastas instead of the risottos. Surely they’re not remembering what Superintendent Chalmers said from an obscure Simpsons episode. In one quote, Chalmers neatly captured the reason why the Italian rice dish hasn’t caught on with most instant-gratification-loving Americans: “I hate waiting. That’s why I hate risotto.” Don’t be like Super Nintendo Chalmers and love that rice right.
Taverna, 222 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-0821; tavernabylombardi.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$60, food only. Full bar.