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Renato Serves Classical Italian by a True Master

August 29, 1991|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Chef Renato Necci acquired a loyal following during his 12-year tenure at Antonello, and if you visit his new restaurant you'll know why. At Renato, his eponymous venture in the Portofino Beach Hotel, this noble Roman prepares a spate of classical Italian dishes in a tasteful setting a world away from the garish waterfront scene just outside.

Renato's particular block of West Ocean Front in Newport Beach is a haven for young beach-goers, motorcycles and loud noise, but that shouldn't keep the multitudes away this time. The last two incarnations here, Zeppa and Grappa, met untimely fates, but they didn't have anyone like Necci anchoring them. Necci is easily the best chef who has worked this building. His food would taste good on a beach blanket.

Fortunately, the creature comforts here extend well beyond that. The room is small and narrow but handsome--all white wood and mirrors and Tuscan elegance, with the best tables crowded together on a mezzanine level just above the front door. The insouciant look of its predecessors hasn't been tampered with, really. Those familiar with the room will remember the trompe l'oeil ceiling painted sky blue and Titian white; the sleek, handsome black and gray tile floor straight out of a Florentine villa, and the open kitchen shimmering with porcelain and stainless steel.

It is in this kitchen that you can spot Necci, an older gentleman invariably dressed in chef's whites. He's French-trained, having worked for nearly two decades as sous chef at the legendary Maxim's de Paris between 1954 and 1971, when it was still considered one of the best restaurants in France.

But don't expect French food here. The man is Italian to the heart, married to the simple flavors of his native land. He only uses French techniques to sauce fish and whip up the occasional souffle.

Nothing is more integral to Italian dining than bread, and here you get the puffy, freshly made variety called focaccia. This one is cut into squares and served piping hot. You eat it with rosemary-infused extra virgin olive oil and aceto balsamico--the dark, sweet vinegar from Modena that Necci pours into the tiny bottles that sit on all his tables. It's evident that the chef bakes it fresh every morning, because this is one item that tastes better at lunch than at dinner.

At lunch the sun and the salty sea air make you hungry for lighter fare, and that makes antipasti freddi (cold appetizers) seem all the more appealing. In the hands of a man like Necci, antipasto freddo all' Italiana becomes much more than a stock collection of cold cuts and pickled vegetables. He prepares wonderful roasted yellow peppers, diced marinated tomato and quartered artichoke hearts to accompany high-quality prosciutto and salami.

There are also fresh salmon marinated in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon and basil and a good wafer-thin carpaccio with arugula to tempt you, but I'd take the filetti di trota affumicati . This is velvety fresh-smoked trout: lemony, meltingly tender and mysteriously imbued with hints of wood and fennel.

On a blustery day, soup might be more apropos, and Necci's minestrone di ieri is the one to order. Indeed, it's the best dish I tasted here, a thick minestrone full of carrots, celery, chard and Tuscan white beans. A Provencal pistou sauce (pureed basil, tarragon and other green herbs) gives it its extraordinary character. Next to it, an otherwise fine Tuscan pasta e fagioli soup made with tiny pasta tubes and white beans (which betrays it and the chef's Roman origins) seems quite ordinary.

Oddly, I didn't realize how good the restaurant could be until I came in for dinner. At lunch, Necci is apt to be busy preparing things for the evening, leaving many of the cooking chores to one of his assistants. That doesn't happen during the evening, when your pleasure is apt to get his full attention.

Pastas excel when the chef is handling them. Most are fresh and good to look at, surprisingly light and chewy. I must say that one I wouldn't order is rotelle alla Napoletana, billed as the house specialty. It's a thin, flat noodle rolled up like a garden hose and topped with cheese and a rather bland marinara sauce.

There are much more interesting choices, and rigatoni ai quattro formaggi is one. This four-cheese sauce is made with pecorino, Parmesan and Gorgonzola, with the addition of Gruyere--a French touch, if you will--that gives it winning pungency.

Even better is the disarmingly simple cacio e pepe, because it is so much like a pasta you get in Italy. It's nothing more than a good al dente spaghetti with high-class olive oil, pecorino cheese and coarse black pepper, but the components blend so perfectly that you realize nature must have intended it this way. Drowning pasta in sauce is an American innovation, and we're fortunate Necci understands the old ways.

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