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Glendora's Romance With Italy

January 24, 1988|MAX JACOBSON

The eastern San Gabriel Valley might just as well be the moon for many residents of Los Angeles. "By the time you get out there," said one of my trendy Westside friends, "you're halfway to Las Vegas."

The restaurant scene is improving there, though. The population is increasing, and recent years have brought many fine new restaurants, places with R s like Rosa's, Rapport, and Rapscallion. Now along comes Alberghetti's to break up the alliteration and, if you must know the truth, it's less than 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles. That isn't even halfway to Palm Springs.

Alberghetti's is a giant; 8,000 square feet of takeout deli, swank dining room and vast function area, and it dwarfs any other Italian restaurant for miles around. There's nothing chintzy about the decor, either: high-backed velvet chairs, white linen tablecloths, fresh roses on every table and porcelain figurines from Spain and Italy scattered throughout the spacious dining room. You might even be tempted to call it romantic. I would.

Chef-owner Dennis Alberghetti operates the business along with wife Nancy, and he's doing his part to bring the tastes of local residents into the '80s. He makes his own pastas, prepares lots of wild game and seafoods, and bakes the wonderful little Italian loaves that accompany all dinners. Despite that kind of diligence, he's traveled a precipitous path to success. The restaurant has been open more than four years, and things are only now starting to pick up.

"When I first opened," said Alberghetti, "I wanted to convince people around here that Italian food is much more than just spaghetti and meatballs. I got a lot of resistance." The chef introduced things like pancetta and bresaola, an Italian bacon and air-dried beef, and the response was less than enthusiastic. "I had to take them off the menu," he said. He also got a lot of resistance to a la carte service. "People around here want bigger portions and more for their money than they do on the Westside," said the chef. "That's why dinners include soup or salad now."

Alberghetti's menu is slanted toward the north of Italy, but many of the heavier, more traditional southern standbys are kept around. An appetizer called cozze e vongole , really steamed clams and mussels in a pizzaola sauce, is a good example of this spirit of compromise. The zesty sauce is a bit too strong for the seafood, but it's safe ground, comforting and familiar to those who think it adventurous to order shellfish in an Italian restaurant.

Our waiter was worried about the antipasto. He probably gets feedback about it being too exotic. "It's really just a big salad," he said. Yeah, and a Mercedes is just a big Volkswagen. This is a wonderful antipasto: mounds of salad in a first-rate vinaigrette, piles of marinated zucchini, olive, and artichoke, and a superb selection of Italian meats and cheeses, including dry Genoa salami, prosciutto and thinly sliced provolone. It's not exotic but it doesn't need to be.

Pastas are hardly more daring, but they are a long way from spaghetti and meatballs. Fettuccine with duck is the best of them. The duck is shredded like machaca and folded into a light tomato sauce using wild mushrooms and a touch of cream. Lasagna d'Alba uses lots of fresh ricotta, and the noodles are thick and tender. Tortellini al pesto positively float in a sauce loaded with basil grown by the chef's father-in-law. All of these pastas are finished at the table.

Things get a bit stickier when it comes to main dishes. My waiter recommended the pollo rosemarino , or chicken rosemary, and the scallopine dolce vita , really medallions of veal and eggplant, sandwiched together with sliced ham and provolone. The dishes, he said, were the two best on the menu. I momentarily forgot that this was the same waiter who tried to steer me away from the antipasto. He's consistent, I'll concede that.

When they say dolce , they mean business. The chicken has a thickly sweet brown sauce overdosed with home-grown rosemary, the veal has a sauce containing enough sugar to candy a lemon. Both dishes are textbook "one-biters." Much better are perfectly broiled swordfish and an excellent osso buco , veal shank served with an overindulgent complement of buttered fettuccine. Another dish to avoid is the innocent-sounding veal piccata, here victimized by another mystery sauce, again thick, and again sweet, and definitely not the lemon butter that the menu advertises.

Come on now, chef. Tastes can't be all that different in the San Gabriel Valley.

Alberghetti's, 765 W. Alosta Ave., Glendora, (818) 914-5853. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-9 p.m., Friday to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Beer and wine only. Parking in lot. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$60.

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