Old Pasadena favorite Villa Sorriso resumes its rightful place on Colorado Boulevard
By Erica Wayne 03/01/2012
Once in a while, reviewers hit it big and discover the rough diamond, the hole in the wall that humanity would kill to know about or the chef whose name is about to become a household word. It’s great to be on the cutting edge, to know you're about to make the world a better place and bring fine food to all humankind.
But sometimes, there's that other feeling, the “I missed the boat” feeling that makes you wonder why you're bothering, since obviously everybody in the galaxy has already discovered the restaurant and neither they nor the restaurant will be grateful. Trattoria Sorriso (“smile” in Italian) was just such a place almost from its birth date back in 1991.
It occupied the ground floor of 46 E. Colorado Blvd. A typical Old Pasadena restaurant with brick walls, ultra-high ceilings and a noise level that maxed out just under that of LAX’s Runway 2, Sorriso was almost always jammed. So was the outdoor seating area that spilled onto the south sidewalk of Colorado Boulevard. Servers with trays mixed with pedestrian passersby. Would-be diners waiting to be seated added to the confusion.
Despite the crowd and the din, which made communication between servers and patrons difficult, service was usually good. Water, warm bread and a full bowl of diced tomatoes mixed with fresh basil, garlic and olive oil appeared almost immediately. So did the wine list, which included a number of interesting vintages.
The menu was heavy on pizzas and pastas, with a fair number of grilled and sautéed entrees. I recall wonderful vegetables like involtini (grilled eggplant rolls stuffed with a zesty ricotta, parmesan, egg, nutmeg and pepper mixture, topped with marinara) and good salads (for instance, the smoked salmon nicoise) all at modest prices.
The recipes were traditional but not clichéd, like farfalle with red snapper, olives, garlic, tomatoes, mint, orange zest and red vinegar, and spaghetti Sorriso with sun-dried tomatoes, grilled chicken, black and green olives, pine nuts and red pepper. The food and service definitely made the clientele smile, but the crowds and the waits were no laughing matter.
Around the turn of the century, the restaurant was purchased from original owner Varo Angeletti by Jack Huang, then owner of Wok ‘n Roll, a popular sushi bar and fusion Asian restaurant right across the street that has since closed.
In 2003, Huang transplanted Sorriso to a far larger site down the block on the southeast corner of Pasadena Avenue and Colorado, which had originally housed both Clearwater Café and Old Town Bakery, separated by a central courtyard. Perhaps it was this spaciousness that encouraged the name-change from Trattoria Sorriso to Villa Sorriso.
The Clearwater space became a comfortable lounge, and the Bakery was enlarged and transformed into a lovely dining room with huge mirrors and lots of glass to maximize the light and provide a clear view of the magnificent courtyard with its patio seating and large fountain.
Service and food quality survived the move. To this day, a warm loaf of bread, water and bowl of tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil still arrive promptly. And the menu still features appealing traditional Italianate dishes (heavy on pasta and pizza, with several nice meat and seafood grills and sautés).
My favorite involtini and farfalle are long gone, alas. But the replacements are just as delicious. Halibut is crusted with pistachios and drenched in pink peppercorn beurre-blanc ($25) and scampi come coated in an orange butter bath ($26). Sorriso’s antipasto ($14) is fabulous and comprises marinated artichokes, grilled vegetables, prosciutto, caprese, dry salami, stuffed hot peppers, olives, goat cheese and olive tapenade.
I’m still partial to Sorriso’s pasta preps and usually order linguini with fresh Manila clams, white wine, butter, garlic, shallots, basil and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes ($16). My mate almost always has a pepperoni and wild mushroom pizza ($13) as well as lasagna Bolognese ($13).
We’re both fond of Sorriso’s Caesar salad ($9), which comes with generous shavings of tangy parmesan and crunchy croutons in a light lemony dressing, lacking only the subtle bite of anchovy I (but few others) crave. The spinach salad ($12) is outstanding: traditional bacon is augmented with port-poached bosc pear, grapes, raisins, fennel, pine nuts and goat cheese and is dressed with balsamic-Dijon vinaigrette.
There’s a similar lunch menu, with a competing section of panini on homemade foccaccia for $8 to $10, whose fillings range from grilled cheese to seared ahi. It’s especially nice for a late lunch when the restaurant is almost deserted and the staff can pamper you.
Huang doesn’t seem satisfied with a single restaurant. He’s transformed the original Sorriso site into an excellent Spanish tapas restaurant (Bar Celona) with a vibrant décor and menu. And, in 2009, he opened IXtapa, a Mexican restaurant/club on the north side of the street a couple of blocks east. Hubby and I, at our “advanced” ages, try hard to avoid crowds, loud music and dancing, so we’ve never ventured inside. (Our kids, however, say it’s fun.)
I wonder what’s next in Huang’s plans. Perhaps a redo of the late lamented Wok ‘n Roll? If future ventures are anywhere near as good as Villa Sorriso and Bar Celona, I don’t think Pasadena will suffer a bit from this fortunate demonstration of manifest destiny.