Daily Pilot May 10th, 2001 - Dining review -- Kathy Mader

Spaghetti Bender makes you feel right at home

I haven't been to Spaghetti Bender in Newport Beach for probably 20 years, and honest to goodness -- good being the operative word -- I don't know why. You don't have to dress up. You don't have to make reservations. You don't have to pay too much. And it serves some darn good home-style, neighborhood Italian cooking. Spaghetti Bender, located among surf shops, burger stands and a liquor store on Coast Highway, is easy to miss if you are not looking for it. But once you see it, you wonder how you could have ever missed it. It's been there since 1969.

Painted to look like a rustic Italian villa, Spaghetti Bender is a family business through and through. And if you are not family, you stay until you are. Chef Alfonso Gomez and manager Janie Whorton have been with the restaurant for more than 20 years each and "are instrumental in its success and consistency," said owner Joyce Hoskinson.

The family, as well as the staff, seem to take a lot of pride in the restaurant, and besides that, it seems like a fun place to work. It is decorated with classic red-and-white checked tablecloths, highlighted with white lights around the windows. You get the sense you are in someone's house. Hoskinson's mother, Ailie Pasini, opened the restaurant while her husband, Lorenzo, was out cooking on ships for the U.S. Merchant Marine, stealing a few of his family recipes in the process.

The restaurant business continues to run in the family, with Joyce's son Michael bringing Spaghetti Bender into the 21st century. The restaurant is now developing its own Web page. The food, however, remains the same. And that is the restaurant's No. 1 goal, Joyce said, even though it wasn't always easy. The restaurant started out too poor to advertise, but word of mouth has kept it in business. In fact, another restaurant is in the works.

The menu can make all your Italian food dreams come true, loaded with all the neighborhood favorites. You won't find those California influences like barbecue chicken pizza here. This is the stuff of sausage and peppers and vats of various time-honored sauces, such as Alfredo, Bolognese (meat sauce) and marinara. Everything you associate with authentic Italian food is here: tortellini, manicotti, chicken parmigiana ($10.75 a la carte or $16.75 for dinner), linguine with clams, and penne puttanesca ($8.75 a la carte or $14.75 for dinner), a spicy dish with garlic, olives and pepper.

At first glance at the menu, I was a bit taken aback as the complete dinners are a full $6 more than the a la carte items. How could this be? But once my tureen of soup -- two to three bowls at least -- and my extra-large tossed salad arrived, it made sense. I relaxed and started in, big time. The homemade minestrone was loaded with beans and pasta and all sorts of veggies, a vegetarian paradise. Brian was thrilled with not one hint of stewed tomato in it; this soup gets the flavor from the beans and broth and is pretty hardy. Throw in a little of that toasty garlic bread and it's a meal. "Papa's world-famous house dressing" on the salad, a sort of creamy Italian, was very good. In fact, the soup, salad and garlic bread is all you need. But as I often say, much to the dismay of my belly, you've got to make it hurt. We tried the fried mozzarella, very fairly priced at $6 because it is huge and the very real deal. No preformed, prepackaged cubes, but a hefty slab of cheese, fried crispy in the garlic bread crumbs and drenched in a tangy, tasty tomato sauce. While all the food is good, this is the dish that will bring us back again and again. Nobody makes it like this anymore.My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Gnocchi is always sort of a telltale dish for me. This potato/pasta dumpling is sticky business, literally. They take a long time to make by hand, so most restaurants just buy theirs frozen or air-sealed from pasta distributors. And if you cook the gnocchi 30 seconds too long or 30 seconds too short, it is either gummy or pasty, or both. Believe me, I know. Spaghetti Bender makes its gnocchi fresh daily. And this stuff is good. Brian went traditional, with the spaghetti and meatballs ($7.50 a la carte or $13.50 for dinner), because if you don't do that right, you can forget the rest.

The results? Brian has suggested we go there twice since last week's visit. The best thing about Spaghetti Bender is that you feel liked you walked into an old friend's house, sat down at grandma's table and she threw together "a little something special." How's that for a family neighborhood restaurant?

*KATHY MADER's dining reviews appear every other Thursday.