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CHARLES PERRY ON RESTAURANTS

Tomatoes Reign In This Southern Italian Food

September 25, 1987|Charles Perry

Veltri's is the Tomato Palace of Yorba Linda. Though the menu posted outside the door emphatically says "informal," the main dining room is quite palatial, all in pink with thronelike banquettes. The best part is an architecturally pointless but terrific-looking column rising from the middle of the floor, cloaked in a profusion of plastic ivy like some quaint royal folly.

But above all, it is the Tomato Palace. For all these years, northern Italian food has been in fashion with its pesto and cream sauces, and the tomato has hugged the sidelines. Veltri's, though, loves tomatoes; it glories in tomatoes. It puts tomatoes in just about everything except maybe the veal Marsala, which I didn't try. Come to think of it, I wouldn't be too surprised to find them sneaking a little in there too.

OK, I exaggerate. There are some appetizers and a couple of pastas without tomato (no tomato in the Alfredo). But altogether, Veltri's is a real holdout of tomato-happy southern Italian cooking, featuring a couple of dishes so down-home southern Italian that you hardly ever found them in restaurants even back when "Italian" meant red-checked tablecloths, candles stuck in Chianti bottles and spaghetti with meatballs.

Of course, Veltri's predates the northern Italian period. The original Veltri's opened in Fullerton 17 years ago and later moved to Brea. There are three generations of Veltris involved. They have a lot of old-fashioned ideas and some ideas that ought to have been more common in the old days, such as a bottomless soft-drink glass.

Let's get the non-tomato stuff out of the way right now. The appetizer list is dominated by things fried in a nice crunchy breading, and some of these--the zucchini and the mushrooms--come with a sort of blue cheese dressing, though the calamari (thick, soft filets) come with a tomato-based cocktail sauce and the fried mozzarella comes in fresh marinara.

Apart from the pizzas, which are the usual range of toppings on good bready crust, you can order a rather unusual bread--I think it comes from the province of Calabria--called pitta. This is not the famous Near Eastern pocket bread we know as pitta but a sort of tomatoless pizza, much like the recently fashionable foccaccia. It has an agreeable topping of Parmesan, garlic and rosemary, making it an exotic variety of fresh garlic bread.

The pasta entrees come with a wide range of toppings, the most unusual being butter-and-pecoria a simple and delicious mixture of melted butter and grated sharp cheese (percoria is, perhaps, the same as pecorino, the well-known sheep's milk cheese). The Alfredo sauce is terrifically rich, and there is a remarkable creamy mushroom sauce flavored with rosemary.

But after this, we're in tomato territory, and it's fun to try to guess how many different tomato sauces there are. There's the light and fresh-tasting marinara, the sweet meat sauce, the dark sauce that comes with the chicken cacciatore and of course the tomato sauce on the pizzas.

Meaty tomato sauce comes on the cannelloni and manicotti (one filled with cheese and the other with spinach) and on the big cheese-filled ravioli, but I'm not sure whether it's the same as the one served on the tortellini stuffed with chicken and veal. There's a class of stuffed vegetables cooked more or less as lasagne, layered with cheese and sausage meat (not, I must say, very attractive sausage; it has an odd dusty taste) topped with more cheese and a fresh tomato sauce.

Many of the usual Italian entrees are here. The chicken cacciatore, with that sweet, dark tomato sauce, is odd in that you expect rather more mushrooms. Veal piccante (not the same as veal piccata), sauteed with onions, bell peppers and tomato sauce is flavored with a tiny bit of red pepper. Chicken or sausage spezzatino, sauteed with onions and bell peppers, don't come in a tomato sauce, but there are a couple of quartered tomatoes in there anyway.

A real Italian meal is likely to end with cheese and fruit; so by default, the obligatory dessert list here is strongly American. The apple and cherry pies seem best to me, followed by outrageously candylike peanut butter fudge cake, and the usual chocolate blowouts: black forest cake and blackout cake.

Prices are quite reasonable. The appetizers run $3.95 to $5.95, full dinners $5.95 to $14.95 and desserts 95 cents to $2.95. If you come in during early bird hours, 3:30 to 5 p.m. any day of the week, you can get any regular full dinner at $1.50 off.

18601 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda

(714) 970-5525

Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner daily.

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