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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Good, Basic Italian Cuisine Is Served With Accent of Garlic and Lounge Music

January 15, 1988|J.D. GOLD

There is a sort of Italian place--fairly common on New York's Upper East Side but rarely found here--that specializes neither in red-sauce Sicilian cooking nor in new-wave Tuscan cooking, serves neither veal parmigiana nor hot fuccacia brushed with oil. These restaurants, while quite expensive, put out simple, basic Italian food that is carefully prepared, bursting with strong flavors like garlic, rosemary, lemon and good olive oil. They neither challenge nor condescend to their upscale clientele.

Fontana di Trevi looks like the fanciest Italian restaurant in Las Vegas, a cross between high-tech and fourth-generation classical decor that comes out looking vaguely like a mauve-and-gray '30s supper club, which one supposes is the intent. Strings of tiny lights twinkle, a plaster fountain burbles in the center of the room and expensively coiffed women, whose furs drape over their chairs, choose sugary pastries from a souped-up dessert cart with a slight resemblance to an Indy car. This is the kind of place that its male customers, most of whom wear dark suits and ties, call classy.

You know what the entertainment is like. A lounge singer in a sequined blouse wails "Feelings"--I swear!--accompanied by a tuxedoed guy who sits behind a bank of synthesizers. This is followed by "Just the Way You Are" and an instrumental version of the theme from "The Godfather." Later, if you're lucky, you'll get to hear a cha-cha arrangement of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (the theme from "2001") that is complete with whooshing space noises.

Whether you want him to or not, the captain tucks your napkin onto your lap the instant you are seated. A list of specials is recited, each one of which is described as "very nice," and a bottle of wine--a soft, fruity Chianti Melini reasonably priced at $15--is recommended. The menu physically looks like one from Melrose Avenue but reads more like Third Avenue: linguine in clam sauce, scaloppine with lemon, fried calamari.

Actually, the calamari is exemplary: crunchy-crusted, tender, just chewy enough to remind you that you are eating squid and not onion rings, and served with both a marinara sauce and an intricately carved lemon wedge on the side. Fried breaded buffalo-milk mozzarella comes bathed in a similar sauce.

Carciofi Giudea , the "Jewish-style" baby artichokes that are a Roman specialty, are not flattened and deep-fried as you might expect but stuffed with bread crumbs and garlic, breaded and baked with oil and white wine until they are crisp and delicious. These might be the best things in the world to nibble with a slightly acidic white wine such as Verdicchio, and are certainly the best appetizers in the house.

Lobster salad, a special one night, seemed to contain a whole lobster's worth of shredded meat and was dressed with a powerfully garlicky mixture of lemon juice and good oil that brought out rather than buried the crustacean's sweetness: a somewhat desiccated lobster tail garnished the concoction but in no way diminished its unctuous savor. Roasted peppers came in a strong vinaigrette sauce and were adorned with silken anchovy fillets: These are the roasted peppers you crave when you order the dish but are all too rarely served.

The best pasta here is the penne, cooked just past the point of crunchiness, served in an arrabiata sauce extremely spicy with crushed red pepper--when you suck in a noodle, the hot sauce inside shoots to the back of your throat. Little, soft gnocchi, too doughy, come coated with a mild pesto; meat-stuffed tortellini are as heavy as kreplach in an excellent, strong chicken broth. I liked giant ravioli--more like cannelloni, really--stuffed with a spinach-ricotta cheese mixture and topped with a good fresh tomato sauce spiked with basil.

Although in most Italian restaurants main courses seem like an afterthought, if you like garlic, they are done very well at Fontana di Trevi: firm, moist swordfish fillet grilled and dressed with lemon, tomatoes and sundried tomatoes, and heady with garlic; crisp-skinned grilled baby chicken, served splayed, heady with garlic and rosemary; long-stemmed lamb chops also heady with garlic and rosemary; grilled chicken breast under a heap of varied mushrooms and (you guessed it) heady with garlic.

Desserts, the usual tiramisu and cannolli sorts of things, contain no garlic. Espresso is good and strong. And the check is more reasonable than you might expect.

Fontana di Trevi, 21733 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 888-0206. Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner nightly. Full bar. Valet parking on weekends. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two (food only) $35-$50.

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