By: Johanna Lack

Photography by Michael Chava

I drove down Winchester with a great deal of excitement.  I was on my way to Rustico, and I was anticipating a great treat.  As soon as I saw the restaurant’s welcoming, little lights that outline the building, my stomach growled.  I think it was urging me on.

Rustico has a warm, friendly vibe.  It almost feels like entering a restaurant while vacationing in Italy  – a feeling aided by a huge trompe l’oeil painting of the Italian countryside hanging on the wall.  The restaurant was designed top to bottom by Felippa Cusimano, wife of owner and chef Francesco Cusimano, who were, no doubt, influenced by their native Sicily.

The bar was bustling, thanks to a special new happy hour that runs from 3 pm until close every day of the week.  Sitting at the bar, tapas (little bites of food) can be ordered at the amazing price of  $3.95 a dish and paired with happy hour priced drinks.

Francesco ushered my friend and me to a table on the other side of the room.  Thea, our friendly and efficient waitress, immediately poured us glasses of Robert Renzoni Vineyard’s Sangiovese, which was delicious with a bit of peppery taste and a light berry finish. The wine list has a nice selection, featuring wines from a variety of countries and regions, including Temecula.

Francesco explained that he opened Rustico six years ago because he and Filippa fell in love with Temecula’s wineries and climate. He’s a self-taught chef who delights in using food for artistic expression.  He loves fusion, so he adds just a hint of Asian influence to some of  Rustico’s dishes.  This influence was very evident in our first selection of Bruschetta Della Casa with Shrimp. This delectable appetizer features freshly made ciabatta bread, covered with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and basil.  The skewered prawns placed on top gave it that unexpected Asian twist – and after trying it this way, I don’t think I’ll ever want “regular” bruschetta ever again.

Then came the Caesar salad.  If you’re ever having a Caesar salad craving, then you need to run to Rustico and order this one. Priced at just $4.95, it’s huge and could almost serve as a meal in of itself.  Covered with a mound of Romano cheese, it had that perfect hint of anchovies and a very satisfying crunch, thanks to the large homemade croutons.

Photography by Michael Chava

Next, we tried Shrimp and Scallops Agro Dolce – a beautiful presentation of grilled shrimp and scallops served over a risotto filled with sun-dried tomato, asparagus, mushrooms and artichoke hearts.  It’s served with a delicious honey-balsamic sauce that’s the perfect sweet and sour accompaniment.

Francesco also wanted us to try his very popular Macaroni and Cheese.  This is definitely not your kid’s mac ‘n cheese (though your kid will probably love it).

Macaroni noodles are baked with a blend of fontina, mozzarella and Romano cheeses, bits of pancetta bacon and toasted bread crumbs.  The entire combination was so creamy and satisfying, I’ll want to order this dish again and again.

Speaking of kids, when I come back, I want my own kids to try Rustico’s hand tossed pizza baked by Francesco’s business partner Joe Cusimano (same last name but no relation).  Customers can “create their own” with an almost unlimited list of toppings that includes eggplant, sun dried tomatoes and artichokes.

We finished off our meal Italian style – that is we sipped cappuccinos and dug our spoons into delicious tiramisu. But this is not just any tiramisu.  Again Francesco adds his own special twist to this traditional dessert.   He serves two scoops of the tiramisu in a martini glass, and places the glass on a plate drizzled with caramel sauce.  I dipped my spoon in the sauce, then in the tiramisu, and I was in dessert heaven.

I was told that Rustico is known for their loyal clientele, some who come as often as two and three times a week. After such a delicious meal at this casual, gourmet restaurant I can see why customers keep coming back.  I will too – very soon.

Photography by Michael Chava

Rustico is located at 29940 Hunter Rd Ste 102 Murrieta, CA 92563 or you can call them at (951) 698-5151

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