Rico’s Italian Villa
233 E. Channel Islands Blvd.
Sometimes, all you want is just a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs. That may not be the guiding principle for more modern Italian restaurants, which seek out regional specialties and play with techniques and flavor profiles — as much to distinguish themselves from each other as to shed the checkered-tablecloth image. But when you’re more interested in cheese-and-tomato comfort food than a culinary exploration, you want the bottles of Chianti, the dark mood lighting, and — yes — those checkered tablecloths. And for you, my friend, there is Rico’s Italian Villa in Port Hueneme.
Getting to the restaurant proved to be tricky. Like so many of the other restaurants in Port Hueneme, it’s in a strip mall on Channel Islands Boulevard, which has foiled my GPS on more than one occasion. But once we arrived, the friendly wait staff found us a table right away, even on a busy Friday night, and made sure the water and garlic bread (which honestly could have done with more garlic) was on the table without delay. They were quick with the wine, too, which came from a list that was surprisingly large for a somewhat modest establishment. The house Chianti (from San Antonio Winery in Los Angeles) was not half bad, but there were Spanish, Italian and even German wines as well.
Until early 2014, Rico’s was Angelo’s, run by longtime owners Colomba and Angelo Tramontano who sold it to Michael “Rico” Federico at the beginning of the year. Federico changed the name and added a few tweaks of his own, but has otherwise maintained the classic Italian menu. And that means pasta, and plenty of it: spaghetti and meatballs, linguini and clams, fettuccine Alfredo, rigatoni. I was delighted to find ravioli and gnocchi on the menu, as well as some of my baked favorites: lasagna, cannelloni and the parmigianas (eggplant, chicken and veal). And to top it off, Rico’s also has homemade pizza. It’s a formula that’s served the restaurant well for over 50 years, and judging by the Friday night crowd, this local favorite hasn’t lost its appeal.
The meal started with homemade minestrone, salads and pizza. Loved the house vinaigrette; the soup was fresh but otherwise a little lackluster. On the other hand, I had no real complaints about the pizza. It’s not the thin Neapolitan-style crust I prefer, but not greasy or too thick, either, and you can tell the dough is made in house. We were very happy with the rich, tender and cheesy veal parmigiana, but the homemade lasagna was what we raved about — the perfect blend of tangy from the sauce, creamy from the cheese and savory from the meat. Rico’s baked dishes might be the best reason to come here.
Gnocchi, a potato dumpling that can take the place of pasta, is a rare thing to find at your average Italian restaurant, so I was excited to try Rico’s. It … was not ideal. To be fair, I’ve had worse, and I know firsthand that getting the texture just right can be a trick. But Rico’s gnocchi was on the gummy side, lacking the lightness that makes these soft potato pillows so delicious. I was also unimpressed by the bland marinara; a tomato sauce needs better seasoning to stand up to starchy pastas. The meat sauce, on the other hand, was quite good, the Italian sausage is well-sourced, and the meatballs were moist, flavorful and universally well-liked. It’s a big menu, boasting pesto, chicken cacciatore, the simple pasta alla checca, both cheese and meat ravioli (which in retrospect I wish I had ordered) and more. You could eat here again and again and still find something new to try.
We saved just enough room for dessert, and after some debate settled on the cannoli, which I would definitely recommend. Not gritty or too sweet, with a crisp wafer-thin shell surrounding the cream that we consumed with gusto. The tiramisu and cheesecake — untried by us — were very popular with the other patrons.
Rico’s prices are very reasonable. Beef and veal dishes are close to $20, but the pastas are all under $15 and include soup or salad. Most wines are $5-6 a glass, and it’s a generous pour. Not every item is up to my Nonna’s standards, but Rico’s Italian Villa does plenty of things right and has a menu big enough to accommodate almost anyone. The whole family will come away fat and happy after dining here, which is what makes these old-school Italian places so great.