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RESTAURANT REVIEW CIAO : Hidden Pleasure : The chef-owner keeps his French-Italian kitchen flexible to keep the customer satisfied.

August 15, 1991|DAVID B. GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A dead, rear corner in a mini-mall along Los Angeles Avenue--the Simi Valley's main drag--is an incongruous place to find a sophisticated, quality restaurant. Especially when you consider that next door is a cocktail lounge whose most prominent feature is the motorcycles parked in front.

For nearly three years, at Ciao restaurant, Francesco and Carolynn Grande have been preparing and serving perhaps the most appealing "French and Italian" cuisine in the Valley. I say "French and Italian" in quotation marks because that's what their menu says, but the emphasis at Ciao, as you might guess from the name, is definitely Italian. I suspect that the little French they do there is because Francesco Grande, a native Italian, spent a few years cooking in France.

Francesco runs the kitchen and, because he's owner as well as chef, his kitchen is very flexible. One night, for example, when the waiter noticed how unenthused we were at his description of Italian antipasto, he asked if we'd be interested in a "real" Italian antipasto--one which wasn't on the menu. We said we would and ended up with a large plate of an antipasto equal to most I've tried in Italy. Proscuito, olives, tomatoes, cheeses, marinated eggplant, roasted peppers, anchovies, salami, etc.

When Francesco isn't too busy in the kitchen, you are likely to find him, as we did on one slow evening, helping Carolynn clear off the tables.

The room itself is nothing to get excited about, since its pinks and grays are dominated by artificial flowers--which seem unnecessary next to the fresh flowers on the tables.

The menu, which generally has what I'd consider a country touch, is strongest in pastas and chicken. But the calamaretti fritti appetizer--squid lightly dusted with flour, put briefly into the oil and then doused in fresh lemon juice--is as perfectly done as any I've ever had. The pepperoni allacciugata appetizer, on the other hand, with its roasted red peppers and anchovies, is spoiled by too much oil and very salty anchovies.

Although I'm not a big fan of cream sauces, I'll make an exception for Ciao's linguine all tetrazzini. It's a pasta dish laden with mushrooms and exceptionally tender chunks of chicken breast. This is a rich dish, but worth it.

My own chicken favorite on the menu is the chicken cacciatore, which is a large, boned, thinly cut chicken breast, cooked just enough to keep the moisture in, then covered with a sauce of red peppers, mushrooms, garlic, white wine, herbs and spices. A lovely example of an Italian country dish. The side dishes are softly sauteed carrots, broccoli and zucchini.

Beyond the food, there are several notable features at Ciao. One of them is the staff--mostly students from nearby Moorpark College, some of whomare less than knowledgeable about what's coming out of the kitchen, but nevertheless trained well enough to find out what they don't know. And Carolynn Francesco's role as hostess, busboy (or busgirl) and sometimes-bartender adds a certain intimacy to the restaurant. Then there is the fact that they use Schweppes tonic, indicating a certain quality in the small bar operation.

None of the servings are stingy. The salads, especially the Caesar, are always crisp, although perhaps not overly exciting (house dressing is vinaigrette with a touch of dijon mustard). And, if you order something like the Scampi all' Agliata, you find that the scampi--sauteed in olive oil and garlic--come firm, fresh and cooked just right.

Desserts can be impressive. I say that especially as I think of Francesco's version of the zuppa Inglese, a moist, soupy cake of liqueurs and custard, or their chocolate cake, which is layers of creamy French chocolate between yellow cake. It's all made in the kitchen.

If Ciao is any example, I guess the rear corners of those mini-malls bear closer inspection.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Ciao, 1627 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley, (805) 522-1049. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Open for dinner seven days a week 5-10 p.m. Major credit cards accepted, reservations accepted. Full bar. Lunch for two, food only, $16-$30. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$40. Recommended dishes: Chicken cacciatore, $8.95; Calamaretti fritti $4.50.

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