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RESTAURANT REVIEW RISTORANTE FABRIZIO : Fine Pedigree : The host's family runs restaurants in Italy, and it shows. But service can suffer when he's absent.

November 15, 1990|DAVID GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If there is just one way to define Ristorante Fabrizio, it might be to say that its menu is less expensive than its ambience would suggest.

You walk out of the shadows of the corner of a shopping center and into a room where the soft tone is set by linens, woods and pastel colors. It is the sort of room that only a few years ago would have seemed out of place in a shopping center. There's even a small cozy bar that provides more than just the beers and wines that limit the lists of so many newer Italian restaurants.

Fabrizio Marangoni opened his restaurant about four months ago. His family has been operating a trattoria in Camarillo for several years, and he has family in Florence, Italy, who have been in the restaurant business for 64 years.

The pedigree shows: This is a restaurant that puts out good food--even excellent food--much of the time. It is best when Fabrizio is roaming the room, and suffers a bit--particularly when it comes to service--when he's not.

It's hard to say that a certain category of food is outstanding here. There's an outstanding linguine Portofino--pasta with baby clams--in a white or red sauce. The red sauce is made with fresh tomatoes, lots of garlic and there is an elusive, spicy flavor that turns out to be hot radish. The clams are served out of their shells, and they are so tender they burst inside your mouth. It's a wonderful dish that makes you want to order every pasta on the list. And that might be disappointing: The very next day you might be served a bland linguine Putanesca .

Perhaps seafood is the safest category here. Consider the house special, the Mamma Mia, seasoned broth filled with mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp, Italian sausage and chicken breast served on a bed of linguine. Fabrizio is generous with the seafood and the chef apparently drops each variety in at a different time so that each is cooked perfectly. This is, I think, the secret to a dish of this sort.

But the kitchen also does a very special job on the sweetbreads Chez Maxim, which are firm but tender and served with a cognac and wild mushroom sauce. These are some of the best sweetbreads I've eaten in years.

As an appetizer, try the shrimp a la Moutarde--prawns sauteed in Dijon mustard, vodka and garlic sauce. The prawns are fresh and gently cooked. They can easily be eaten with a plate of the antipasto Toscano, an appealing simple platter of peppers, mozzarella, olives, tomatoes, basil, radishes and some especially good prosciutto.

Fabrizio's makes its own desserts; the best I've had was an amaretto chocolate tart.

As wonderful as Fabrizio's can be, it does have its drawbacks. On one very quiet day, when Fabrizio was not in the restaurant, we went through a litany of "Who gets this salad?" instead of getting the soup we'd ordered, the house salad instead of the Caesar we'd ordered, and a 20-minute wait between the appetizers and the salads.

This is a restaurant with some very good dishes--just make sure Fabrizio's going to be around.

WHERE AND WHEN

Ristorante Fabrizio, 3731 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Westlake Village, (805) 496-9033. Lunch Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner Tuesday-Thursday 6 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations accepted. Full bar. Meal for two, food only, $25 to $65.

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