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RESTAURANTS/MAX JACOBSON

Regal Gazzella: Rich From Start to Finish

December 05, 1991|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants every week for The Times Orange County Edition.

The gentrification of downtown Long Beach took a giant step forward when the Kazempoor brothers opened Gazzella, an ersatz Tuscan palace perched regally at Atlantic Avenue and Broadway.

The surprise effect of this building is magnified after sundown, when the floodlighted fountain and palms surrounding the entrance stand out starkly against the night sky. Inside the giant double doors, the design is even more ostentatious, a mix of antebellum elegance and classical Italian sensibility.

The floor is pink marble, with a sweeping marble staircase straight out of "Gone With the Wind" leading directly to a grand mezzanine strewn with tables peering out over a wrought iron balcony. Down below and off to one side is a beautiful granite bar in Art Deco style, complemented by a Baldwin concert grand that is aired out Wednesday through Sunday evenings by a lounge pianist.

The main dining area is huge, framed by cream-colored walls with thick mauve drapes and still-life paintings. The walls have been flecked lightly with gold paint, and the flecks glitter gently in the restaurant's dim, amber light. A friend pointed out that this light makes reading the menu nearly impossible, but co-owner Nader Kazempoor insists his restaurant was built for romance and that turning up the lights would detract from the mood.

Lights are everywhere, though--clusters of tulip-shaped fixtures of frosted glass hang all over the place. The tables are well spaced for maximum privacy, draped in beige linens that match the walls. Quirky clarinet music plays quietly in the background. This could be Florence or even Las Vegas. Whoever would guess Long Beach?

Perhaps that is why the restaurant remains largely undiscovered. The Kazempoor brothers own two smaller, more popular Italian restaurants in the nearby Belmont Shore area, Taverna and Cafe Gazzella, and I guess they assumed that their regulars would follow them uptown. It hasn't happened yet.

Gazzella is about as far from being a neighborhood restaurant as can be. Chef Nick Clemente's menu is formal and even a bit stuffy. The chef is from Bari, the heel of the Italian boot, but his food leans toward the Continental. Unlike trendier Italian restaurants, where the menus are top-heavy with appetizers and pastas, Gazzella gives you lots of veal, chicken and seafood. The lighter courses seem almost throwaways.

They aren't, of course. Once you are seated, a light appetizer or amuse-gueule is served; it could be anything from crostini of foie gras to tiny patties of minced chicken topped with red pepper mayonnaise. This is followed by crusty homemade rolls, served piping hot with large rectangles of sweet butter.

The antipasti tend to the luxurious. Carciofi ripieni are braised, stuffed artichoke bottoms with a lemon butter sauce, looking a lot more complicated than they taste. Melanzane assortite is even more elaborate, an assortment of appetizers made with eggplant, but the spectrum of flavors it offers doesn't quite merit all the fuss. Caponata is a cold eggplant spread mixed with tomatoes and capers, best when smeared on hot bread. The terrine, consisting of thinly sliced eggplant layered with tomato and yellow pepper, also is served cold, in a pool of moss-green olive oil. The best of the three is the only hot one, rollatini, a tiny roll-up with goat cheese, topped with a fragrant tomato sauce.

In an unusual twist, the pastas are listed on the menu's back page, almost as if to discourage you from ordering them. Orecchiettole bietole comes from the chef's native province, Puglia. Orecchiettole means "little ears," a reference to the shape of the pasta (though the menu describes them as "monks' hats"). Clemente sautes them with Swiss chard (the bietole ), pancetta, onion, crushed red pepper and whole tomato, a most satisfying combination.

Penne with four cheeses is creamy and savory. But the mezzelune in salsa di noci are overly bland. The mezzelune themselves--crescent-shaped ravioli filled with veal and ricotta--are properly chewy and firm but the walnut cream sauce has no bite, and the nuts have been so finely ground you think you're eating baby food.

Ordering a pasta might be superfluous anyway, should you plan on a main course: Most of them come with pasta de jour as well as a choice of soup or salad. Veal Rossini is a dish of positively laughable richness. Clemente roasts the filet mignon of veal with wild mushrooms, then tops it with melted provolone and a demi-glace brown sauce. Chicken spinaci, no slouch itself opulence-wise, seems almost sparse by comparison--a grilled chicken breast sauteed in dry white wine butter sauce with scallions, garlic and lemon, all crowned with spinach.

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