Review: Origano In Hillcrest
While there are certain positives associated with hitting a new restaurant as soon as it opens, most often, the finest representation of an eatery comes weeks or even months after they’ve had the chance to settle into a groove and work out the inevitable kinks that come with any new venture. So, I bided my time with Origano, a small osteria (Italian for a casual neighborhood eatery) brought to the Hillcrest community courtesy of a joint-venturing pair of entrepreneurs who own and operate downtown’s Panevino, Osetra and Greystone as well as La Mesa’s Antica Trattoria.
With experience like that, it was perfectly reasonable to assume any and all problems should have been fixed by the time I came in for a taste. Certainly, the restaurant itself thought so. A pre-meal perusal of their website turned up the healthiest self-image I’d ever bore witness to in the form of About Us verbiage that included phrases like, “Prepare to be impressed,” “We guarantee to obliterate your expectations of what an Italian dining experience can be,” and “Promise to give you the finest dining experience you’ve ever encountered.” Oversell much?
The answer, in this case, is yes. But, honestly, what restaurant outside of Italy or the three-star section of the Michelin Guide can live up to such boastful assurances? Fortunately, when it comes to reviewing restaurants, marketing prose isn’t a factor. It’s all about food, service and the utility of the venue, and Origano comes through with flying colors on one factor, more than fine on another and below average on just one. Let the dissection begin.
Upon entering Origano, I was immediately disappointed. For months, I’d been hearing about the presence of a sage with over 40 years of experience manning the restaurant’s built-in pizza oven, yet he was nowhere be seen. Ditto for a hostess or anyone to greet us on arrival. The latter job is left to any member of the wait staff who happens to be in the vicinity of the door. Not a big deal and perfectly understandable at a time when all employers are cutting back. After a short while, a kindly waiter introduced himself, guided the way to a table and, from there on out, service was spot-on and delivered with the friendly personality you’d expect of a comfortable neighborhood spot as well as a culture where mangia is the mantra.
The food was delivered in admirable fashion as well—piping hot and nicely plated from the open kitchen running the length of the western side of the dining room. It was upon arrival that the chinks in Origano’s armor became visible. Pizzas are served on a wide wooden disk while large round plates are the main form of conveyance for the restaurant’s pastas and proteins. Yet, the tables at Origano are all extremely small. While petite furniture may make for a more intimate experience among dining parties, they make eating a real challenge. There simply isn’t enough room on the tabletop of a two-seater for a main plate (if a couple are sharing, which figures to happen with great regularity given the nature of the menu options available), two individual plates, two bread plates, an oil-and-vinegar plate, a bread basket, two water glasses and, if diners are so inclined, wine glasses. Throw in backless chairs that make it feel like they've pulled an ottoman in from the living room (I was glad to discover new backed chairs are on order), and you have a dining experience that can be nothing other but clunky and, for anybody looking to relax even to the slightest degree, uncomfortable.
Thankfully, the food makes up for the aforementioned shortcomings, bringing an offsetting sense of sensual comfort to the table that’s so robust, it can turn a terrible day into a happy one. At this point, I may sound as if I’m the one that’s overselling, but my first visit to Origano was preceded by a string of negative events so dreadful they were nearly debilitating. In fact, I almost rescheduled for fear that I would be unable to provide the place the fair shake it deserved. Needless to say, I was happy to see a nice, extremely affordable wine list consisting of approachable varietals from the Mediterranean. But it wasn’t at the bottom of a wine glass that I found solace. That unexpected respite came courtesy of the Quaglie Piemontese, a warm appetizer of quail served over rectangular planks of firm polenta that have been fried until they’re golden brown and crispy on the outside. I am regularly disappointed by polenta, but extremely impressed by the texture achieved via this preparation and its contrast with the rich, tender meat of the quail, which was complemented beautifully (as would just about anything else) by a honey and Nebiolo wine sauce that was neither cloying nor syrupy. It was a well-balanced dish that wiped my blues away and served as a nice precursor of things to come.
Despite the lack of the on-site pizza oven lifer, I put in my order for a pie topped with mozzarella, paper-thin speck (cured, cold-smoked ham), plump portobello mushrooms and truffle oil. Fired by a second-stringer or not, the crust had nice flavor and texture. It wasn’t as crispy as most oven-fired models, but I, for one, was happy to have a bit of chew and a complete absence of blackened bulges, which never add anything but a carcinogenic tinge to otherwise good bread. The combination of flavors from the toppings made for a pleasantly salty set of bites and there was enough ‘za to make for a shared meal, making any pie quite the bargain. If there was anything to critique, more oil, even if merely a standard EVOO, would have provided a bit of moisture, as the pizza was a bit dry by Neopolitan standards (and bone dry by Americano standards).
Pastas are prepared with traditional values intact. They are cooked nicely—not al dente, but only slightly past that point. That should appeal to an American palate, while the fact that the noodles are served with just enough condiment to coat, rather than slather, is just good sense worldwide. Even with that level of restraint, the wait staff won’t shun you if you choose to indulge in a fetish for excessive sprinklings of grated Parmesan. In fact, they’ll encourage it. After all, there are few better methods for salting a dish. A particularly impressive selection from the pasta menu—fettucine al ragu di salsiccia—features a zesty ragu of home-made Italian sausage and shiitake mushrooms that does not disappoint.
Secondi (the course that follows pasta, or primi, in Italian culture) offerings like cosciotto d’agnello brasato—lamb shank slow-braised in red wine and served over saffron risotto—are served in portions that are quite hefty at prices that aren’t. Given that level of abundance, diners are advised to take half of such an entrée home in order to save room for a lovely take on a tiramisu that’s as light as it is tasty.
While Origano wasn’t “the finest dining experience I’ve ever encountered” and in no way changed my gastronomic worldview, it did, in fact, chime in far beyond my expectations and, hey, any meal that could make me forget a day like the one I had, is one to write home about.
- City: San Diego
- Phone: 619-295-9590
- Name: Origano
- Address: 3650 5th Ave.