If You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Know

  • 04/11/2018
  • Richard Foss

Secret Menu Specialties at Neil’s Pasta and Seafood

By Richard Foss, Dining and Cuisine Writer

 My friends make fun of me because I usually don’t know what I’m going to order at a restaurant until our server is standing there with a notepad. I have heard many variations of, “You’d think that as much as you dine out, you’d be decisive by now.” But I shrug it off every time. No matter how much I read the menu, I rarely know how a place operates until I talk to the server.

This isn’t just because servers probably know the daily specials, what the kitchen does best, or what the cooks are out of. If I’m lucky, servers also tell me about the secret items that make dining at their restaurant really worthwhile.

I’ll give you an example. My friend, John, bugged me for years to visit Neil’s Pasta and Seafood Grill in San Pedro.  But I never made the time. The menu on the website looked generic; nothing made it stand out from the other Italian places in the area. Ultimately, it was John, himself, who got me to Neil’s Pasta and Seafood Grill. Curious about what he saw in the place, I finally joined him there.

When it came time to order, Neil himself came out of the kitchen. I asked him where in Italy he grew up. He answered Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, so I asked him to bring things that were typical of that cuisine.

Neil grinned, asked if I had any food restrictions, then headed into the kitchen and went to work. I had no idea what was going to come out, but I was sure it was going to be the best thing he could cook. We waited while enjoying some good bread that was served with a mix of mascarpone cheese and marinara; I found the combination slightly odd but kept nibbling.

The first thing to arrive was a rabbit salad that isn’t on the menu, but apparently is often available. The roasted meat had been shredded and tossed with potatoes, arugula, tomato, and onion in a zesty herb dressing. It was delicious. Later, I looked up the cuisine of Ischia and found that my rabbit salad is one of the island’s signature dishes. Ischia instantly jumped several notches higher on my list of tourist destinations.

Soup is included with dinner, and we chose lobster bisque and minestrone.  Both were less robust than typical Southern Italian dishes. As it turns out, this is characteristic Ischian spicing, which is appropriate for a region specializing in seafood with modestly accented natural flavors.

An example of this arrived next, a plate of scallops with orange segments in a Grand Marnier cream sauce. The touch of liqueur added depth to a sauce that otherwise might have crossed the line into blandness, and it was a sound pairing with the seafood. Green beans and roasted potato rounded out the plate. It was a substantial meal.

That light touch didn’t work as well with bucatini Amatriciana because that dish of pasta tossed with guanciale (peppery smoked pork) in tomato-based sauce is usually spiked with a substantial dash of chili. It originated in the Lazio region near Rome, and the version served here is probably the islander’s local interpretation. The traditional version is thicker and contains more of the melted pork fat, which may be unhealthy by modern standards but punches it with flavor. It was an interesting variation, but I prefer the original.

We finished with a very good tiramisu and glasses of limoncello, the tart liqueur that is another specialty of the coast. Dinner for two with three glasses of wine ran $127, on the high side for the area but worth it for an unusual experience. Now that I know the secret of negotiating the menu with Neil himself, I’m likely to stop in to try more of the island-style cuisine. I’ll keep asking about secrets and specials everywhere too, just in case it works this well again.

Neil’s Pasta & Seafood Grill is at 383 W. 5th St., San Pedro. Open midweek 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5  to 8:30 p.m., Sat. 5  to 9 p.m., closed Sun. Wine and beer served, wheelchair access, adjacent  parking lot. Menu at neilspastaseafood.com, (310) 548-3495.

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Richard Foss

Richard Foss is a culinary historian, author and museum consultant who has lectured around the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He wrote the section on Croatian cuisine in the Encyclopedia of World Food Cultures and also contributed to the Oxford Companion to Sweets. He is working on his third book, which is about food in Spanish and Mexican colonial California from 1790 to 1846.