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RESTAURANT REVIEW: GIOIVANNI'S : Italian Classic : The shopping-center location raises doubts at first, but the tasty food calls for a return visit.

November 08, 1990|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I'd been hearing whispers--even outright declarations--for months about a restaurant in Camarillo that served the best Italian food between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. A place called Giovanni's. Some people were even saying it was the best restaurant in the county.

I admit I was doubtful when I first saw Giovanni's shopping center address. But when I walked in, I found a classic, formal restaurant, with no relationship to its neon-lit come-and-shop surroundings. This place could even have been intimidating: The staff was better-dressed than my companions and I. But the young son of the owner was also on hand that evening. Obviously, under its classy veneer, this is a restaurant with a sense of family.

We sat in an alcove, backed by a decorative wall of wines, and began with bite-sized pieces of warm focaccia bread that gave off a subtle aroma of garlic. An antipasto of lettuce, tomatoes and grilled eggplant came with fabulous roasted peppers. Eggplant played the role of pasta in the cannelloni appetizer. Wrapped around mozzarella, it was lightly dressed with a parsley cream sauce that had a slight mushroom flavor.

When the salads arrived, we had to agree with those rumors about Giovanni's. One salad with baby spinach and fresh basil leaves was decorated with thin slices of good smoked salmon, fine smoked trout and more of those wonderful roasted peppers. Slices of robust lamb on greens with sweet pine nuts, little white beans and warm goat cheese were drizzled with a perfect vinaigrette.

The entrees rolled up to the table in style on a serving cart with warming burners. I immediately regretted an unadventurous choice of veal with lemon sauce, which, while perfectly good, is easy for any old Italian restaurant to do. But what other restaurant offers a dish of dueling fish? Opah, wrapped in red leaf cabbage with red peppercorns and saffron, dominated one side of the plate; opposite that was a choice piece of cod covered with an excellent lemony crab sauce.

Capellini with fresh tomatoes and lots of garlic was a perfectly executed rendition of a popular dish. It really didn't need the grilled salmon, which was optional anyway. However, I doubt if any other restaurant has ever done a risotto with porcini mushrooms quite as sublimely as Giovanni's. It tasted like hot fragrant bites of heaven.

By dessert we were already nostalgic about the food we'd eaten. But fresh banana ice cream, like real bananas captured in ice; a pear-almond tart with flavor-laden pears and a serious crust; and hot, hearty cappuccinos sustained the mood of the meal. When we stepped outside into the shopping center parking lot, I wanted to turn around and have the whole experience all over again.

WHERE AND WHEN

Giovanni's Restaurant is located at 5227 Mission Oaks Blvd., Camarillo, (805) 484-4376. Lunch is served Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner is served Tuesday-Sunday, 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$75.

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