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CHARLES PERRY ON RESTAURANTS

Italian Sidewalk Cafe Graces Shopping Mall

March 13, 1987|CHARLES PERRY

The Crystal Court addition is certainly prettier than the rest of South Coast Plaza, but apart from white-tiled department store tearooms it's scarcely had any place to eat. That's changing fast. Signs are up for a future Ruby's and a Bangkok Four, and we already have Gianni, which might be described as a white-tiled sidewalk cafe located under an escalator.

Gianni might also be described as a stripped-down, mall-size version of Prego. It has the same basic menu as that excellent Irvine restaurant: pizzas and pastas, a little off the beaten track but thoroughly Italian rather than wacky-Californian, plus a few light meat dishes (though at Gianni they are not so single-minded about grilling as the only thing to do to meat). A number of the dishes are the same, including a crowd-pleaser of a dessert, tiramisu. Eating at Gianni is an awful lot like eating at Prego.

To complete the illusion, I have a feeling some of the waiters once worked at Prego. Prominently located at the central dome of the Crystal Court, with a great view of a clever fountain (and the Nordstrom across the street, too, if you like that sort of view), convenient not only to the escalators but a couple of windowed elevators, Gianni seems to have lured some of the most spirited Italian waiters from the area, guys who confide in the customers, eagerly steer them to dishes and improvise promptly to satisfy a diner's whim.

To start at the beginning, the bread they bring to your table has a wonderful, stiff, spongy texture like a crustless sourdough, a foretaste, of course, of Gianni's pizza. In the endless debate on whether pizza should have thick or thin crust, I tend to hold with the thickies, and on the whole I like the pizzas here.

The toppings are rather simple. Pizza Margherita, topped with tomatoes (not tomato paste) and cheese, is about the best, though the topping tends to be a little watery. The rest can be as simple as adding some sliced mushrooms or some prosciutto to this basic model; the most complicated adds both mushrooms and prosciutto plus artichoke and peppers. Still, for a mall snack you may not want anything more complicated, and the sturdy dough would be acceptable with just about anything on it.

Focaccia, by the way, is described on the menu as "pizza bread," but it uses an entirely different dough. It's a thin, almost crumbless bread like the world's most slender (and, of course, freshest) pita. It comes with the barest of toppings, just cheese or a tiny bit of garlic and virgin olive oil.

One of Gianni's secret weapons is an excellent mozzarella. Mozzarella in carozza is the best appetizer, one that I've seen ladies with sly, pleased looks on their faces ordering as an entree. It really is a treat: egg-sized cubes of fried mozzarella, very light and delicate in flavor, in a bit of fresh tomato sauce. The mozzarella is also, I'm sure, the reason for the success of the best of the pastas, ricciolina tre formaggi. This is curly, ripple-edged pasta, green and white, in a remarkably light cheese sauce.

The pastas are generally easy to like, and I should note the nice light gnocchi and the spaghetti puttanesca spiked with unannounced capers. However, I was a little disappointed by the rather simple-minded ragu sauce, which gives the impression of hamburger cooked in tomato sauce. It's dull on the broad noodles called pappardelle, but I must say it comes into its own in lasagna al forno, which is baked with this meat sauce and a white sauce into something more interesting than our usual cheese-heavy lasagne.

More than half the meat entrees are chicken, and they can be very good. The pollo al limone is a barely done sauteed chicken breast in a very lively lemon sauce, heavily dosed with capers. I had wanted to try the one beef dish listed, paiarda alla griglia or grilled thin-sliced steak, but a lengthy discussion of the theoretical possibilities of what I could get in the beef department somehow led to my getting New York steak with a side of spaghetti in ragu. There is such a thing as a waiter who is too interested in food.

The waiters are tireless in pushing tiramisu for dessert, and it certainly is a flag-waver: ladyfinger cookies soaked in marsala and layered with, it says here, mascarpone cheese (actually, what it says on the menu is "mascorpene"). I don't detect anything at all cheesy in this filling. It seems to be nothing but whipped cream to me, but I have yet to hear anybody complain, particularly since it's sprinkled with cocoa.

For the rest, there are very respectable pastries, better than I've come to expect in an Italian restaurant: lemon cake, almond cake, tartlets filled with chocolate or fruit and the like. There are said to be ice cream desserts like semifreddo and spumone and coppa del nonno, but somehow the waiters never urged me to try any. Come to think of it, I never saw a wine list, either, though I didn't complain about the Terczal Pinot Bianco.

Appetizers run $2.50 to $6.50, pizzas $5.50 to $8.50, pastas $6.50 to $9.75. Meat entrees are $8.50 to $12.50 and desserts $2.25 to $3.50.

GIANNI

3333 Bear St. No. 118, Costa Mesa

(714) 540-3365

Open for (Continental) breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; for breakfast and lunch Saturday (till 6 p.m.) and Sunday (till 5 p.m.). MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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