Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Going Italian in Monterey and Pacific Grove

Jimmy Walker held his lead at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament to win $1.18 million, but that wasn’t the only high drama going on in the Monterey-Carmel area last weekend.

At the pre-tourney party, actor and former Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood performed the Heimlich maneuver on Steve John when a piece of cheese got stuck in John’s throat. John is the event’s CEO.

“Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. Clint saved my life,” John told the local newspaper, the delightful Carmel Pine Cone, which ran the story on its front page.

“I looked in his eyes and saw that look of panic people have when they see their life passing before their eyes,” said Eastwood, 83.

Which reminded us not to talk much during our meal at Cafe Fina, the best restaurant on Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf and among the top destinations on the dining-centric Monterey Peninsula.

Owner Dominic Mercurio opened 25 years ago with a menu that reflects his Sicilian heritage (sausages, veal and chicken Parmesan, baked penne, house-made ravioli, meatballs in marinara sauce) and the local seafood scene (paella, salmon, halibut, calamari, deep-fried anchovies, crab cakes). Many of the dishes (including seven pizzas) are cooked in the wood-fired brick oven. Prices range from $5 to $45.

Cafe Fina’s clam chowder is outstanding, and so is one of its longtime go-to’s, Pasta Fina, an original dish that has been counterfeited by many restaurants over the years. It’s linguine topped with a clam broth-butter sauce chunky with bay shrimp, Roma tomato, black olives, scallions and shallots.

“We try to change with the times, but people do like tradition,” said Mercurio, born and raised in Monterey. “We keep the basic dishes, but veer off with specials to avoid the same drumbeat.”

We sat upstairs and watched sea otters cavort in the marina. Inside, a taxidermied blue marlin is mounted on one wall, a display of colorful ceramic platters on another. While “Autumn Leaves” and other soothing sounds played in the background, the well-rehearsed servers in white shirts and aprons delivered samplings from the brief menu of daily specials.

Tender-crispy octopus tentacles had been roasted and slightly charred over almond wood, then dipped in olive oil, lemon juice and oregano and served over luscious wilted greens, perfectly cooked garbanzo beans and soft potato chunks “with a few drops of balsamic vinegar.”

Mercurio marinated lamb-chop “lollipops” in pomegranate juice, mint and garlic, fired them to medium in the wood-burning oven and served them with mild mint pesto. The side of crisp carrot coins and raisins had been sautéed in butter, brown sugar and sherry. Was the dish a showstopper? Are you kidding?

One local delicacy is the Monterey Bay spot prawn. It can weigh up to a quarter-pound, and has flavor and texture close to lobster. Its availability is limited because “only a couple of guys” still set traps for them (in 900 feet of water), and then sell their catches to Asian markets in San Jose. “We still manage to get a few pounds now and then,” Mercurio said.

We were in luck this day. Materializing at our table was a platter of grilled, heads-on crustaceans splashed with marinara sauce thinned with clam base, and nestled in saffroned rice and green peas. The prawns’ “bellies” were frothy with tiny pink roe. The ritual: Break off the head, remove the meat from the shells, suck the sweet roe from the shells and eat the prawn. Messy, yes. Delectable, double yes.

We finished with a “custard puff,” an éclair-like dessert made and sold exclusively at the landmark Scotch Bakery for decades. Shortly before his retirement in 2004, owner Jack Watson told Mercurio, “My kids aren’t taking over the bakery, so I would love to give you the recipe.” A sweet legend lives on.

Il Vecchio

We dropped by another four-star restaurant, Il Vecchio, in neighboring Pacific Grove. There we found a plate of house-made pappardelle pasta topped with rich lamb ragu, and a luscious piece of local rock cod in white wine and garlic, topped with basil pesto. Examples of why simplicity is vital to artistry.

Ending the meal was the Prince, a dessert described as “a recipe from Lorenzo de Medici (Florentine Republic ruler in the 1400s) – strawberry purée simmered with 12-year-old balsamic vinegar (poured) over vanilla gelato.” The piquant taste is delicious, but perhaps an acquired one.

We sat near the fireplace, made of creamy-colored Carmel stone, and looked around the handsome dining room. Why are seven antique-looking chairs mounted on a wall?

“They’re antiques (dating to the 1840s), and we were using them in the dining room,” explained owner and retired psychotherapist Carl Alasko. “Every time someone would sit on them, I would shudder and say, ‘That’s too scary,’ so we made them (into an art display).”

“Il Vecchio” translates to “the old” or even “the traditional,” in keeping with the décor and the menu.

“Everything here is old – every surface and table and chair has been recycled and nothing has been retouched,” Alasko said. “The recipes are classics from Rome, and the Umbrian and Tuscan regions. We’re very proud of saying we are deliberately not innovative (in the kitchen).”

Il Vecchio serves a five-course “Culinary Adventure” prix fixe menu from 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays ($22), and a family dinner 5 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays. The prix fixe “Worker’s Lunch” is a deal at $9.50, noon to 1:30 Mondays through Fridays.

Il Vecchio, 110 Central Ave., Pacific Grove; 5-9 p.m. daily, $6-$24; (831) 324-4282,