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Fresco: Not The Same Old Red Sauce

March 01, 1987|RUTH REICHL

Fresco Ristorante, 514 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 243-6908. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $32-$68.

It was love at first sight. My friend Chris came into the restaurant, gave the maitre d' an appraising look, glanced around the cozy white room with its ivy-ringed skylight and said, "I hope you're going to be nice to this place." The maitre d' murmured something in his soft Italian accent as my friend took in the sweet little columns and arches that defined the room. She leaned back in her chair, hummed along with the live piano music and sighed. "I just know this place is going to be good," she said.

Nothing about the evening was to change her mind. Chris loved the tiny, warm, crusty loaves of bread that came snuggled in a napkin. So did I, although I did think the butter would have been better if it had not been left uncovered in the refrigerator. She loved the way the restaurant looked, and even went so far as to say that she liked the feel of the glass in her hand when she took a drink. She was, to be sure, smitten.

And that was before the food came. Chris had hardly eaten two bites of her appetizer before there were stars in her eyes. I didn't even bother to accuse her of exaggerating when she insisted this was the best lobster salad she had ever eaten. Large tender pieces of lobster were sitting on a bed of greens; each was crowned with a perfect section of grapefruit. A sprightly dressing made of grapefruit juice and what the maitre d' called "just the tiniest amount of butter" bound the dish together. Chris could not be persuaded to taste my first course, which was fine with me. This unusual salad combining rosy slices of veal liver with little bright green leaves of mache was delicious; the splash of aceto balsamico was the perfect touch.

I followed this with an unusual combination of whole-wheat spaghetti, bits of red pepper, cubes of soft, melting cacio cheese and lots of pepper. I found it delightful, although I wasn't thrilled with Chris' choice--duck topped with blueberries. When I suggested that the bird was a mite overcooked, Chris looked absolutely crestfallen; she ostentatiously ate every morsel, insisting that she had never tasted a more delicious duck.

For dessert, the maitre d' suggested an extravaganza the kitchen had created. This turned out to be a production involving coconut cookies, nut cookies, liqueur-marinated strawberries, chocolate and white chocolate ice cream. It was a bit much for me, but Chris was in heaven. "I'm so glad I live in Glendale," she said happily.

Chris was so enthralled with the restaurant that she called the next day to give me what she called "exciting news." She had done a little snooping and discovered that chef Antonio Orlando used to be the chef at Valentino. "And," my friend added, "that handsome maitre d' is Lino Autiero, who also came from Valentino. When they heard that Mauro's was for sale, they found a partner, bought the restaurant and decided to set up on their own. No wonder it's so good."

And no wonder the restaurant has been, from the first, filled with restaurant critics. One night, the restaurant's publicist regaled a critic at one table while I occupied another and a third sat conspicuously recording ever bite she took into an enormous microphone. At one point, she even had the maitre d' talking to her radio audience. Most of the other patrons in the restaurant found this quite entertaining--and there were plenty of patrons in the place. Fresco may be a mere two months old, but on weekends every table is filled.

This does not seem to be a problem for the front of the house; the waiters are solid professionals who know what they are doing--and they are clearly rooting for the fledgling restaurateurs. I have never felt such a sense of unity in a restaurant. But there are times when the kitchen seems overtaxed, nights when the restaurant is packed and the cooking is just a little off. One Friday night, the otherwise perfect risotto nero was salty, the capers were left out of a delightful veal with capers and lemon, and a fish cooked in cartoccio (a big puffy aluminum square that is cut open at the table) had been cooked just a little too long.

But most nights the food is really good; some nights it is even better. That's how it was the night I took a friend's visiting mother to dinner. I had decided that instead of ordering, I would simply ask the kitchen to send us whatever they wished. Within minutes, my friend's mother was swooning. "How can I go home?" she asked. "This is not the same old red-sauce Italian food that I am used to."

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