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DAVID NELSON ON RESTAURANTS

Familiar and Not-So-Familiar Italian Cuisine

May 24, 1990|DAVID NELSON

Toasted ravioli sounds like an ersatz breakfast food gone Italian--or at least it did when described by a server at Villa di Gallo in Oceanside--but it actually is one of those odd variations on a common theme that, in the right hands, can prove a minor treasure.

Restaurateur-chef Vincenzo Gallo, who trained in New York and has cooked at this comfortable spot on South Hill Street for three years, offers these chubby, moon-shaped ravioli as a special appetizer two or three times each week. Stuffed with a simple but tasty ricotta filling, the ravioli are run under the broiler until they acquire a coppery glaze and then sent to table doused with chopped parsley, a few shreds of cheese and a shot of wonderfully strong garlic butter.

This simple but effective starter appears as a frequent alternative to such listed appetizers as mussels steamed with garlic in butter and white wine; artichoke hearts cooked in a fashion similar to that of the ravioli and the very Italian gamberetti marinati , or grilled shrimp served cold in a marinade of olive oil, chopped tomato, basil and garlic.

Pasta is an inescapable fact of life at Villa di Gallo, which not only offers 20 entree-sized pasta dishes but serves all seafood with or over linguine (the macaroni that Italian tradition dictates is the only shape suitable with seafood) and garnishes the large selection of veal and chicken dishes with whatever paste suits Gallo's fancy, usually rotini in a smooth but robustly flavored marinara sauce.

The choices in this department progress from the extremely familiar--lasagna, fettuccine Alfredo, spaghetti with meatballs--to Italian classics that virtually never appear locally, such as the linguine disperata , moistened with a sauce of briefly cooked chopped tomatoes seasoned with garlic, hot peppers and anchovies. Between these extremes are such offerings as tortellini with cream, prosciutto and mushrooms; fettuccine with creamed chicken and fresh tomato; linguine with various shellfish in red or white sauces and that old but surprisingly tasty standby, linguine aglio ed olio , the simple toss of pasta with garlic sauteed in olive oil that harried mamas and bachelors have thrown together for generations.

All meals include the house salad (this ho-hum blend of greens and bland, milky dressing erroneously is described as a Caesar salad) or the day's soup, which can run to such pleasures as a very Italian brew of beans, broth and escarole.

As frequently occurs in mid-range Italian houses, a number of preparations repeat through the entree categories, so that there are both veal and chicken piccata , and parmigianas of both those meats, of eggplant and, most unusually, of shrimp. This last was nice in its way, especially for the size and flavor of the shrimp, but the breading turned soggy when baked under its coating of tomato sauce and was rather unappealing.

Among other less common but quite attractive dishes are the pollo rollatini , or boneless chicken breast wrapped around ham and cheese and sauteed with mushrooms, artichokes, garlic and white wine, and the veal scalloppine Maria, which is unstuffed but finished with a similar sauce. Gallo gives a good, crisp finish to the mushrooms that gives them a larger than usual role in this dish, and the artichokes add a piquant note that is quite pleasant with the tender slices of sauteed veal.

The brief dessert list includes but one homemade item, a cannoli of great lightness and flavor that is so spiced with cinnamon that it almost seems hot; it is a fine sweet, especially when accompanied with a cup of the carefully made espresso.

The service takes a professional but friendly tone that goes rather well with the mood of the place, which by and large seems a little less formal than the decor of rock walls, roomy banquettes and brass chandeliers would usually imply.

VILLA DI GALLO

1733 S. Hill St., Oceanside

Calls: 433-5811

Hours: Dinner served Tuesday-Sunday; closed Monday.

Price: Dinner for two, with a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $30 to $50. Credit cards accepted.

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