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Your Wish Is Noodle's Command

July 23, 1987|BEVERLY BUSH SMITH | Smith is a free-lance writer in El Toro

"I hope," said the friend who first recommended the Stuft Noodle to me, "that you will tell everyone how accommodating they are."

I can't think of a better word to describe this Newport Beach Italian restaurant since Robert Douk and "Pepe" Santamarina took it over last October.

On a low-cholesterol diet? Of course they'll omit the rich sauce and grill the day's fresh fish not a second too long, brushing it only with a bit of garlic.

Garlic doesn't agree with you, and gnocchi is offered with marinara sauce? No problem. Douk will arrange for a light mushroom sauce for these feathery dumplings (which are the antithesis of the lead sinkers you may have tried elsewhere).

Can't handle coffee after 7 p.m.? The Stuft Noodle serves not only brewed decaffeinated coffee, but also decaffeinated cappuccino and espresso.

But even more important, the restaurant accommodates lovers of fine Italian food with moderate prices: $8 to $18 for complete dinners.

"We saw that the good Italian restaurants in the area were expensive, and the inexpensive (restaurants) were not good," Douk said. "We decided to change that."

Gradually, they also changed the ambiance, lightening the walls and dark woodwork with pale pink to echo wine and pink tablecloths and re-carpeting in deep green. Waiters wear tuxedoes, yet guests seem comfortable in casual attire.

To be honest, my first visit to the Stuft Noodle last winter did not equal my later experiences. I'd invited a food editor from the East for lunch, and she stood unattended in the reception area for five minutes. Our luncheon fare did not match my friend's rave reviews--especially the dessert. The cheesecake I'd heard so much about was not available, so we ordered cannoli. This was cannoli , with its soft, almost crepe-like pastry?

Since then I've been back twice for dinner, loving both the service and food--and received good reports on lunch, as well.

Mozzarella marinara, a silken melt of cheese, comes alive with tangy sauce embellished with capers and black olives. Calamari fritti arrives piping hot, tender, with a light, tempura-like batter. Minestrone combines chunky vegetables in basil stock.

Tortellini stuffed with veal takes on added flavor and richness with cream sauce, mushrooms, chicken, prosciutto and bacon. A light, fresh marinated tomato sauce enhances the swordfish. Filet mignon al Pepe abounds in peppercorns, plus brown sauce with Cognac and cream.

You needn't touch a knife to the veal dishes. Robustly flavored osso buco falls off the bone in its tenderness. You also can cut the venison, finished with cream, Sherry, rosemary and porcini mushrooms, with a fork.

Chef Daniel Johns, a talented young American formerly with Antonello's and Giorgio's, prepares almost 50 items on the regular menu, and as many as 10 nightly specials. He also adds such extras as home-made rolls flecked with basil, oregano and garlic; different vegetables with different entrees; potatoes dredged in olive oil, butter and Parmesan, and baked with basil and onion.

And such desserts. I can't think of better cheesecake anywhere, and I've tasted the Stuft Noodle's German chocolate, strawberry, Grand Marnier and lemon. One night when we agonized over our dessert selection, Douk brought a dessert sampler: Small servings of thick-with-fruit pear tart and apple tart, tiramisu (lady fingers with rum, espresso, mascarpone cheese, whipped cream) and an equally decadent "chef's delight," which involved almonds, butterscotch sauce, chocolate, custard.

The wine list, with 15 different Chardonnays, offers a good selection at reasonable prices; there's also cocktail service.

The Stuft Noodle, 215 Riverside Drive, Newport Beach; (714) 548-7418. Street parking or valet parking on weekends. Reservations. Major credit cards. Lunch, Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, Sunday through Thursday, from 5 to 10 p.m.; weekends, from 5 to 11 p.m. Lunch, $5.50 to $12.50. Dinner, $8.50 to $18.

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