It's getting much more difficult to find old-school Italian-American restaurants, coast to coast. Sadly, over the past few decades, even Mulberry Street in New York's iconic Little Italy has devolved into a saccharine tourist trap for unwitting visitors.
When two up-and-coming chefs, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, opened Torrisi Italian Specialties in the middle of Little Italy in 2010, it quickly became a critically acclaimed homage to the Italian-American classics of their youth. Torrisi was the sole outlier in a sea of ersatz mediocrity, but it closed in 2015.
In Los Angeles and Orange counties, it's especially difficult to find red-sauce joints with any ease. Every new restaurant in the Italian vein seems intent on improving classic dishes or highlighting a more refined type of cuisine, such as the Tuscan seaside town of Forte dei Marmi, or cosmopolitan Milan. Tustin is something of a dining wilderness (except perhaps for the omakase-only Sushi Wasabe, or J. Zhou Oriental Cuisine), but surprisingly, it's home to an excellent East Coast–style Italian restaurant.
The family-run Pina's Bistro occupies a small space in the middle of another garden-variety mini-mall, anchored by — what else — a 7-Eleven. Chef-owner Guiseppina “Pina” Ercolamento, who hails from Naples (in the Campania region of southern Italy), has been operating the restaurant for more than 21 years with her doting, gregarious daughters.
Ercolamento usually can be seen cooking in the kitchen with her younger daughter, Felicia, while her older daughter, Hannah, tends to the dozen or so tables with loving care. Pina will pop into the dining room from time to time to chat with longtime customers and first-timers too.
It's the type of place where regulars will eagerly make menu suggestions to newbies, such as the gargantuan, one-pound grilled veal chop. As the simple two-page menu proudly proclaims, everything is made from scratch, and you can taste it in every bite. Fluffy, airy meatballs, two to an order, swim in a delicate tomato sauce. The rustic bread works wonders at sopping up the house marinara sauce; the bistro's shelves are decorated with jars of that sauce, as well as bottles of lemony vinaigrette and assorted family mementos from Italy. Perennial favorites include Pina's signature sautéed homemade Italian sausage and peppers, seafood linguine, and classic spaghetti and meatballs.
The veal Parmigiana is a textbook paragon of the genre: Think meticulously tenderized veal filets (and you will hear coming from the kitchen the intermittent din of it being pounded to order), lightly breaded and baked with mozzarella. Gooey, cheesy, ladled with more of that tomato sauce and deeply comforting, this one dish definitely strikes up nostalgic memories of the Italian-American food we wax rhapsodically about yet never seem to taste these days. According to the menu, the veal chops and filets are 100% grass-fed, hormone-free cuts imported from New Zealand; for those who balk at the thought of consuming veal, the chicken and eggplant parmigiana are both just as good.
A fitting coda to your meal might be Pina's perfectly creamy tiramisu, dusted with cocoa powder. Or perhaps her moist walnut rum cake, served in a pool of reduced rum sauce, which might just remind you of the tea cakes your grandmother used to make. Various gelati and cannoli are offered. It goes without saying that all the desserts are made in-house, too. For years, the casual Italian chain Olive Garden had a catchy slogan — “When you're here, you're family” — but at Pina's they actually mean it.
640 W. First St., Tustin; (714) 730-5442, pinasbistro.com.