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RESTAURANT REVIEW BOCCALI'S : Pastoral and Pizza : The old-California scenery and good dishes make a nice rest stop during a Sunday drive.

February 20, 1992|DAVID B. GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the early 1900s, California really was the pastoral scene we see on the labels of old wooden orange crates. In Ventura County, citrus groves covered the landscape, the air was crisp and clean, and either the fruit was already hanging from the trees or the odor of blossoms let you know it was on its way.

But there was no pizza.

In the Ojai Valley, earlier inhabitants, the Chumash Indians, left no sign that they even missed it. They had already given the area the name Ojai, which means "The Nest," indicating they were quite comfortable, even without pizza.

Today, at the bottom of the Dennison Grade, before the road starts to climb up into the Upper Ojai toward Santa Paula, there is a small, wood-framed building. It's a restaurant called Boccali's, and it is one of the few remaining places that has that old-Southern California pastoral feeling--and pizza.

Not that Boccali's pizza alone is worth a drive to Ojai. It is not.

What Boccali's offers is a lovely, cozy combination, which is best appreciated on a sunny weekend afternoon. From under the Budweiser umbrellas, at the outside picnic tables, the atmosphere is dominated by the surrounding citrus groves, gnarled oak trees and the nearby mountains. To this you can add pizza, pasta, sausages, garlic bread and some accouterments--even if it's too cool to eat outside, and you are in the red-and-white checkered oilcloth interior.

The pizza crust, too heavy at the edges--a bit bread-like--is about the only real negative. The toppings themselves are quite good. It's a place where you start out with the basic cheese topping ($8.95 for a 14-inch model, $11.95 for the 18-inch version) and add anything from crab to pineapple ($1.25 to $2 each). I was impressed because the shrimp topping isn't overcooked, the chicken comes still juicy, and there is lots of everything no matter what topping you choose.

There are a limited number of dishes offered, but the restaurant certainly reflects the "Italian homestyle cooking" touted on the menu. There are salads and an antipasto ($4.95) that features both salami and chorizo, plus vegetables. Nearly worth the trip to Ojai itself is the delicious thick, chewy, crisp-crusted garlic bread ($2.25), layered with Parmesan cheese and herbs.

I noticed that the spaghetti dishes ($5.95) going by--either meat, vegetarian or garlic butter versions--rise high off their plates. And I certainly would recommend either of the casserole dishes. One is the lasagna ($6.95), with what seemed to be fresh tomato sauce, cheeses, pasta and green pepper--or meat, if you wish. The other is eggplant Parmesan ($7.95), savory and just spicy enough.

On weekend afternoons this "pizza roadhouse" serves a mixed clientele, including those out for a Sunday drive, some Yuppie bikers, some "real" bikers, and groups of local families. If it's cool, I like to sit inside, maybe at the counter, and peer through the serving window into the kitchen, where red-shirted kids are twirling large circles of pizza dough into the air.

I've heard there was another Italian operation here before Duane and Marilyn Boccali took it over about five years ago, but I like this one just the way it is. There are Michelob and Miller beers on tap (never mind those Budweiser umbrellas outside), wine, of course, and for you teetotalers, the Boccalis produce a fresh-squeezed lemonade.

Personally, I can't imagine drinking lemonade with pizza.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Boccali's, 3277 Ojai-Santa Paula Road, Ojai, 646-6116. Open Monday-Friday 4 to -9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 9 p.m. Beer and wine, reservations accepted. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $14 to $30.

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