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An Airy Experience At Sunny Il Cielo

November 23, 1986|RUTH REICHL

Il Cielo, 9018 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, (213) 276-9990. Open Tuesday-Sunday for lunch (brunch on weekends) and dinner. Beer and wine. Valet parking at night. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $38-$70.

"From the time I was 10 I always wanted to be either an astronaut or a restaurateur," says Pasquale Vericella, explaining how he came to call his new restaurant Il Cielo (The Sky). And the sky must have been the limit, for there was envy all over the city when restaurateurs heard that somebody had finally managed to strike a deal for the late En Brochette, one of the most coveted sites in town. Take one look and you will instantly understand why: There is not a prettier restaurant around.

But Vericella has succeeded in transforming what was once an earthy little restaurant into a truly sunny experience. In addition to lovely courtyards (one discretely shaded from the street by a wrought iron fence, another on the side with a gurgling fountain), an entrancing cottage with white walls and a trompe l'oeil sky painted on the ceiling, there is now the added pleasure of truly solicitous service. It is easy to feel that you are walking on air, sitting on clouds.

From the moment that you make your reservation, you feel cared for. "Where would you like to sit?" asked a quiet voice the first time that I called. "Inside or out?" "Are you comfortable?" ask the waiters constantly. "Can I get you anything?" they wonder at every turn. A fresh basket of the delicious bread appears on the table in the middle of the meal, and here is Pasquale himself with his anxious actor's looks and his charmingly mingled Italian-English, improving the climate and urging " Buon appetito ."

If you choose carefully, your appetite is likely to be good. Care, however, is in order, for despite the fortune Vericella must have put into transforming what was little more than a closet with burners into a spiffy modern kitchen, you are unlikely to be transported by what you are eating. The food reaches for the stars but it doesn't quite make it. (Thankfully, Il Cielo's prices have come down since its opening four months ago.) Begin with delicious smoked scamorza cheese baked with eggplant and you will be happy. There is a fine version of carpaccio that has been quickly seared, covered with slivers of Parmesan and doused with truffle oil. Radicchio is served as it should be, grilled until its delicate bitterness comes shining through, then mingled with grilled endive (a different bitterness) and toned down with fresh mozzarella.

The kitchen sometimes soars with their numerous risotti --one deep black with squid ink, topped with scampi, another with fresh melon (I haven't been tempted to try this one) or a version simply cooked with Parmesan cheese to a rolling, seductive richness. Unfortunately, the pasta dishes often don't get off the ground. Homemade ravioli are laden with a veal filling, then topped with a zingy pink artichoke sauce that gives the dish a delightful flavor. If only the pasta were a little less weighty! Gnocchi, always a heavy dish, are even heavier here, and the Bolognese sauce with which they are topped does little to lighten them up.

The kitchen seems impressed with astronomically priced ingredients. Sometimes this works well, as in the simply cooked chicken that comes deliciously decked out with fresh porcini mushrooms. But veal is embellished with black truffle, prosciutto and white wine; lamb (very good lamb) is draped in a red wine sauce, and salmon shows up in a creamy sauce of chives, shallots and wine.

When you get down to earth, you understand why the kitchen attempts such tricks: enormous shrimps grilled with olive oil and garlic can be dry and dreary, and the numerous grilled fish I have had here ( bronzino being the best among them) were generally overcooked.

Entrees all come with the same vegetables--usually some permutation of carrots, potatoes and occasionally what the kitchen calls "souffle," a sort of stuffing-like vegetable melange that is filled with unusual flavors (some meat, some citrus, a little sweetness) that is curiously appealing.

Equally appealing is the star dessert, semi freddo of nuts and chocolate, a large, not-quite frozen slice of chocolate truffle floating in a hot chocolate sauce. It is irresistible. There are also airy profiterolles , creme caramel and a ricotta pie tasting strongly of Amaretto. The coffee is good.

The wine list, which was priced sky-high, is in the process of being revamped. I generally opt for the house white, a Pinot Grigio. "You must taste this," Pasquale tells his guests, proudly displaying a label reading "Cielo." Is it from his own vineyards? No indeed. Pasquale grins and launches into his story. "It's so amazing. The wine maker heard about us in Italy and sent me the wine to try. He said he had been looking for a restaurant with our name, and until now he could not find one anywhere." You see, he seems to say, it was all in the stars.

And that, ultimately, is the appeal of this very likable restaurant. The food may fall short of heavenly, but this is certainly a very pleasant place under the sun.

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