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RESTAURANT REVIEW / FRULLATI-CAFE DELLA RIVIERA : Best Pesto : Every entree has something to recommend it. But some could use salads.

December 26, 1991|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The trail that led to Frullati-Cafe della Riviera was laid down by rumors that it had the best pesto in Ventura County. So we hastened over to Ventura Harbor Village to find out for ourselves.

When I've gone to this picturesque location before, the complex has sometimes seemed so deserted and forlorn that I had the impression I was on my way to a mercy meal. Not this time.

Frullati moved two years ago to its present location on the waterfront. Because people seemed to have trouble with the name (an Italian fruit drink), the owners added "Cafe della Riviera."

The place truly does resemble a small cafe or trattoria from Portofino on the Italian Riviera. Its walls are painted a wonderful Tuscan rust color and it has a charming patio. Its inviting warmth is further enhanced by an unusual ceiling treatment. Half the restaurant has stylish, unbleached canvas umbrellas above the tables and the other half sports an exquisite teak-looking rowboat, hung upside-down from the ceiling. This makes an excellent conversation starter.

Even more pleasing than the decor is the fact that Frullati-Cafe della Riviera serves wonderful food. I haven't had a dish there I didn't like. Lunches offer an easy selection of soups, salads, pastas and classic sandwiches. A chicken sandwich ($6.50) came on toast, with tender chicken breast, Swiss cheese, good lettuce and--like an excellent club sandwich--just the right amount of mayonnaise.

Spaghettini olio, aglio e pepperoncino had plenty of garlic, toasted just this side of crisp and sensationally spiced with hot pepper flakes. It was delicious but should have been served, as the sandwich was, with a small salad, because for $7.95, it was too plain a meal.

The salads are good here, made with the freshest possible crunchy romaine lettuce and decent dressings. The Caesar salad was quite timid though, with no anchovies, blessed little garlic and the mildest of croutons.

Minestrone soup, on the other hand, was a bona fide pepper pot, full of fresh vegetables. Every entree I tried had something to recommend it. They all came with zucchini slices, respectfully prepared to bring out the best in them, as well as rice or potatoes. I recommend the potatoes--wonderfully roasted the Italian way.

Chicken Costa del Sol ($12.95) consisted of layers of chicken breast, fresh tomatoes and avocado slices all covered with pungent, melted Swiss cheese. Medallion de boeufaux champignons had tender slices of beef in a wonderful Marsala-flavored mushroom sauce. The veal piccata ($15.95) came with a terrific, rich, caper-laden sauce that was like a lemon gravy--a close relation to the hollandaise family? The veal was excellent, too.

And how was the pesto? Great. Even better than the rumors. Not tired, not cloying, not oily, as some pesto tends to be. This one was light and provocative, and the essence of basil in the dish was marvelous. Frullati-Cafe della Riviera may be the best thing that ever happened to Ventura Harbor Village.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Frullati-Cafe della Riviera, 1559 Spinnaker Drive, No. 109 Ventura (805) 658-9153. Parking lot, full Bar, Mastercard, Visa. Breakfast, Saturday and Sunday 8-11 a.m. Lunch, Wednesday-Monday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner, Wednesday-Monday 5-9 p.m. Dinner for two, food only. $26-$55.

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