When people ask us about our favorite Italian restaurant, we tell them it's a little hole-in-the-wall in the Target mini-mall in Duarte. And then they stare at us like we've each grown two heads. But those who have been to this place will attest to the fact that it is indeed a fabulous Italian restaurant, an oasis that you don't expect.
We happened upon this fabulous place in a most peculiar way. We'd been driving by some years ago when the husband saw the sign. He has some inexplicable fixation on "ristorantes", so he wanted to try it some time. Time went by, and we never got around to going, but finally one day about a year later, he decided he really wanted to go. It turns out that the wait ended up being a good thing. We found out that when he had first seen the sign, it had been owned by another party, and in the interim, it had been sold and was now owned by an Italian couple, Rosetta and Bernardo. They'd only been open for a short time under the new management, and we immediately fell in love with the place. Rosetta is the main greeter/hostess, and there are usually one or two waiters. Bernardo does the books for the restaurant, and at the time the restaurant opened, their son was the executive chef, though I don't know if he still is, so it was a real family operation.
The restaurant is charmingly decorated, with painted "windows" that look outside, and the tables are draped in linen with a candle and a small flower in a vase on the table. The dishware and glassware are what you might expect in a fancier place, and the little touch of using doilies under various things really adds to the ambience. It really is unexpected to find a gem like this in a mini-mall. They do have a few outside tables, but since the view looks out on the parking lot, we've never sat out there, though there are flowerbox dividers separating the little seating area.
They have an excellent homemade minestrone soup which I usually get as a starter. We've also had the antipasto platter appetizer once, and it's plentiful enough for two with a good selection of different items.
There are a couple of pastas that I generally get and like. One of my favorites is the Mammamia - chicken with sundried tomatoes, mushrooms, bell peppers and black olives with a white wine garlic sauce. It's got really good flavor, and unlike some places that advertise sundried tomatoes and actually just give you regular chopped tomatoes, they use the real thing. The bolognese (old Italian-feast meat sauce) and the del nonno (a meat sauce with homemade meatballs) are both quite good, and I really enjoy the allo-scoglio (pasta with clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari and garlic) when I'm in the mood for seafood. I've tried their arrabbiata (spicy tomato sauce with garlic and black olives), but it's sweeter and not as spicy as I normally like.
They offer pizza as well, and I've never gotten around to trying it, though I keep saying I want to. One of these days!
On this particular night, I had been perusing the pizza menu when our waiter came up to tell us the specials of the day. They were offering a salmon with capers and artichokes with a little bit of pasta and vegetables, and that sounded so good that I was sold and put off pizza for yet another day. One of the other specials was osso bucco on risotto, and the husband ended up ordering that.
Instead of just ordinary bread for the table, they offer a complimentary bruschetta with tomato and basil, which also has wonderful garlic flavor.
The minestrone soup was as good as usual, but we noticed that since our last visit, the soup was no longer being served in a regular bowl, but rather, in a brown crock of sorts, very cute.
I loved my salmon, and the flavor of the capers and artichokes with the salmon was perfect. The husband really enjoyed the osso bucco as well, which was a very generous serving.
We did not have dessert on this evening, but they have a couple of desserts that are delicious. The tiramisu is homemade and amazing. They have a sort of toffee ice cream thing (yeah, I know, I suck at the description) that is just incredible. The first time they offered it on the menu, we loved it and asked how they had come up with it. Turns out that on Rosetta's recent trip back to Italy, she'd picked it up there and brought it back, along with the cute little shovel spoons that they have for you to enjoy the dish.
The service is always good, pleasant, friendly and helpful, and our water glasses are always kept filled.
All of the tables are square tables - except one, to the side of the front of the restaurant. We have affectionately named that table the "Italian table" as the first few times we visited, there always seemed to be an Italian family sitting at that table, and Rosetta would be conversing with them in Italian. The first time we were there when the table was occupied *not* by an Italian family, we tried not to look at them askance! :) You will actually quite often hear Rosetta either on the phone or in person speaking to someone in Italian - it's almost like an Italian enclave in the middle of the San Gabriel Valley, so we've been really happy about discovering this little secret.
They tend to be generally busy, though not packed, and we've never had to wait for a table. It sounds weird at first to recommend this Italian restaurant given its location, but no one that we've referred there has ever been disappointed.
Here's their official website.
Villa Italia Ristorante
1028 Huntington Drive
Duarte, CA 91010