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September 13, 1987|RUTH REICHL

You can eat like the Pope while he's here, but you probably won't want to. Many of the dishes that chef Ruggero Gadaldi plans to feed the Pope come straight off his menu at Cardini in the Los Angeles Hilton and Towers. Whether you will want your dinner in the elegant supermodern restaurant to parallel the Pope's is another matter; I found those particular dishes among the least appealing offerings on the menu.

Gadaldi starts strong at Tuesday lunch, a major meal since the Pope, in the European manner, eats his big meal at midday. Lunch will begin with a California garden salad with mozzarella. I definitely suggest that you try it--even though it's not on the menu. It should be; when I asked if they would make me the Pope's salad, out came the most delicious plate of greens I have had in a long time. Little bits of mache, baby lettuce, arugula and chicory covered the plate, interspersed with torn bits of fresh basil and oregano, slices of tiny red and yellow tomatoes, and slivers of sun-dried tomatoes. It was a beautiful salad, and it was tossed with an impeccably balanced dressing. Setting it off were soft little balls of fresh mozzarella, ringing the plate. "We have someone come in every day just to make the mozarella," said maitre d' Giovanni Mancini.

Next the Pope will eat roast rack of veal with morel sauce and fresh rosemary. This is on the menu: I found it respectable but dull. The great big veal chop was served with pomp and circumstance. Sitting on top were two very plump whole black morels. The mushrooms, unfortunately, had a lot more flavor than the meat. All around it were potatoes so small they looked positively pathetic in relation to the giant chop. The Pope will be getting California baby vegetables; the public is served a little squash.

For dessert the Pope will feast on Washington apple tart. This is not on the menu, but you can console yourself with a perfectly delicious pear tarte tatin .

The Pope finishes off with assorted domestic cheeses and fresh fruit; we finished with very good espresso.

For Tuesday supper (which will not take place until 9 p.m.) the Pope will begin with crepes stuffed with fontina cheese and white truffles. It is not on the Cardini menu. What is on the menu is a dish called pizzoccheri, from Gadaldi's home province in the far north, where Italy backs up on the Alps. It is made of whole-wheat fettuccine tossed with fontina cheese, little bits of potato, chopped up cabbage, and whole leaves of sage and butter. It has a homey, down-to-earth flavor, and I think it is the best thing on the menu. I can't imagine that those fancy truffle-stuffed crepes are one bit better.

The next course will be a papal special, Seattle baby salmon with spinach. Since it isn't on the menu we substituted Norwegian salmon in a sauce of lime, orange and truffle. It was, in a word, awful; the fish was dry and overcooked, the sauce a real mistake. I hope the Pope fares better. He will subsequently be served raspberry, lemon and pistachio sherberts; we treated ourselves to tiramisu.

The Pope's breakfasts sound fabulous. Too bad Cardini doesn't serve so early in the day, but you can eat along at home. Begin with fresh juices, melon and berries, and then go on to scrambled eggs with air dried beef and cilantro, sausage, country potatoes, and all manner of muffins, croissants and rolls. But don't eat too much; Gadaldi won't be serving the Pope's lunch, but he does have a mighty supper in the offing.

For the Pope this will begin with black ravioli filled with lobster, which is not on the menu. If you are eating along you will have to settle for black ravioli with shrimp and tarragon. It is on the menu, but frankly, if I were you I'd skip it; to my taste the tarragon overwhelmed the shrimp, which were pounded to a rather gelatinous paste. I'd settle for linguine with lobster sauce-- or perhaps something simple like penne with tomato and basil.

For a next course the Pope will be served Sonoma free-range chicken with green peppercorn sauce. Not exactly earth-shaking food, but this good simple dish is on the menu (at lunch), and it is always satisfying. The Pope will end the meal with assorted pastries, sherbert, cheeses and fruit. You will probably want to end with one of the very pretty pastries from the cart.

Gadaldi feeds the Pope for the final time on Thursday morning. The Pontiff will be fortified with a breakfast of fresh juice, sliced papaya with fresh raspberries and blueberries, hot porridge with honey walnuts, chopped apples with cinnamon, sugar cream and milk, omelets with sour cream and beluga caviar--wait, there's more--mini-filet of beef, Canadian bacon, potatoes and pastries, jams and jellies, before heading off to Monterey. There, we are told, he will be regaled with Monterey Bay poached salmon, Castroville asparagus and a few fruit tarts.

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