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DAVID NELSON ON RESTAURANTS

The Good at Villa d'Este Is Enough to Overshadow the Pretense

December 17, 1987|DAVID NELSON

Time, tides and demands of the holiday season precluded a second visit to Villa d'Este, an unfortunate situation given the attractions of this new Del Mar eatery.

The restaurant rather presumptuously takes its name from the historic grand hotel on the shores of Lake Como, the picturesque watering spot north of Milan that has catered to the very well-heeled for a couple of centuries. Besides the name, about all that the Italian Villa d'Este and the Del Mar restaurant have in common is a view of the water, which in the local case amounts to a panorama of Los Penasquitos Lagoon that is visible only from the front, and least comfortable, dining room.

But pretense aside, there are numerous good things about this place, and most of them are edible. In keeping with what seems to be an unstoppable local trend, the menu takes a serious view of Italian cuisine, in this case the more soigne cooking of the North, and the kitchen seems able to keep pace with what is certainly an ambitious list of primi piatti (appetizers), pastas and entrees. It does less well with desserts, but if one has taken full advantage of the main sections of the menu, this one weakness will not seem terribly important. As an added bonus, the wine list is exceptionally well-chosen, with a great number of fine Italian vintages appropriate to the cooking.

Service Relatively Formal

Villa d'Este offers three rooms, a bar and patio dining during clement weather; although all of them feature roses and candlelight, the two small, back rooms are infinitely the more comfortable at the moment. Specify a table in one of these if making a reservation. The service in every room presumably is the same, which is to say concerned, informed, relatively formal and altogether reassuring in these days of off-hand, familiar service.

As is standard in Italy and as is becoming common practice here, the restaurant offers a selection of the day's antipasti served from a buffet table tucked away in a corner of one of the dining rooms. These displays sometimes feature a dozen or more savory items, and one receives a tiny taste of most. On the visit in question, Villa d'Este's board offered but five dishes, with the compensation that they not only were served in quantity but were quite well-prepared.

At its least prepossessing, the antipasto plate included strips of grilled zucchini, a typically featured item that in this case would have benefited from a good soaking in olive oil, a finishing touch that turns simple zucchini into something more complex and desirable. But the plate also included fat wedges of cantaloupe wrapped in fine, tangy prosciutto ham; artichoke hearts marinated in a mixture that incorporated a teasing hint of fresh lemon juice, and savory "sandwiches" of creamy mozzarella di buffala (a buttery cheese churned from the milk of water buffalo) pressed between tomato slices garnished with fresh basil.

The star of this plate was a mound of veal salad, an unusual mixture of shredded roast veal seasoned with slivered onion, chopped parsley and an almost ephemeral hint of vinegar. This was an extremely pleasing offering.

Impressive List of Pastas

According to current usage, the menu continues with an impressive list of pastas that allows guests to make a choice that not only will determine the overall nature of the meal, but also its cost. A pair of guests who each order pasta as a main course will find the bill considerably smaller than the pair that splits a dish of pasta and then follows it, in the pleasantly indulgent Italian fashion, with entrees.

Should the latter course be followed, a pasta that equally well precedes meat, poultry and seafood dishes is the paglia e fieno ai porcini , a suave and subtle jumble of fresh, narrow spinach and egg noodles (extra-narrow fettuccine, to be precise) tossed with musky, perfumed forest mushrooms and a bit of Parmesan cheese. The flavors of this dish are simple but rich; it is a refined and rather austerely elegant dish.

The paglia e fieno was the only pasta sampled, but among promising-sounding offerings are the spaghetti in fresh tomato, garlic and basil sauce; the fettuccine Villa d'Este, which incorporates peas, artichoke hearts and mushrooms in a basic tomato sauce, and the apparently sumptuous cannelloni Bolognese. This last dish consists of crepes stuffed with minced beef, veal, ham, mushrooms and spinach, baked under twin coverlets of cream and meat sauces; if this sounds extravagant, consider that Bologna often is called "Bologna la grassa ," or "Bologna the fat," because of its insistence on rich food.

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