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Portofino Serves as La Habra's Own Bit of Italy

March 19, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Out here in La Habra, upscale restaurants are at a premium.

Orange County's northernmost community is the very epitome of a quiet bedroom community, peacefully removed from the main freeway lines. Occasionally you see young mothers wheeling prams in the hazy sunlight, but mostly, you don't see anybody.

Even the main street, Whittier Boulevard, lined though it is with gas stations, specialty shops and burger stands, is quiet. The better known, East Los Angeles stretch of this street--about 15 miles due west--might as well be on Pluto. This is a stay-at-home, play-at-home kind of place.

So coming upon Portofino, a converted Ichabod Crane's that once upon a time functioned as the area's hot nightspot, does take you somewhat by surprise. Portofino is the name of a rustic seaside village in the Italian province of Liguria (just across the border from Nice on the Italian Riviera), and the restaurant is nearly as charming as its namesake.

The interior is a trenette of grand marble and plaster rooms, divided by noble columns and overflowing with amphorae, classical paintings and bas-relief. There is a great bar with a roaring fireplace, and elegant appointments like tapestry chairs and gorgeous, tropical plants in dining areas. It's as if a piece of the Via Veneto (OK, so that's in Rome, not Liguria) took meteoric flight and landed squarely on Main Street, U.S.A.

I am not quite as taken with the food at Portofino, although some of it is worth a sizable detour. Wonderful pizzas, breads and soups are made by the all-European kitchen staff, so it is clear that someone here can actually cook. But there is a problem with consistency. A few dishes seem tired and bland, not to mention overcooked.

The restaurant puts its best foot forward with primi piatti . Pizzas have a slightly oily, puffy crust, but they are cracker-crisp, never doughy, and brushed with good, complex flavors.

Pizza alla Californiana is terrific. It looks ordinary, and you won't know right off the bat that it is topped with the perfect amount of imported mozzarella and a tangy marinara sauce. But there's more. Underneath the cheese is a thin layer of subtle, exquisite pesto and chopped fresh basil, a magical combination.

Most of these appetizers impress you, too. Antipasto Portofino is a far cry from the tired canned olives and pressed meats you get at ordinary Italian restaurants. It's a small plate dotted with good grilled vegetables, eggplant- and-zucchini caponata, hearty roasted peppers, rollatini (pasta rolled up with cheese) and a few excellent, slightly bitter olives straight from the Mediterranean.

The credible, if slightly watery, carpaccio is thinly satisfying. This carpaccio is topped with basil, mustard and a flurry of Parmesan, but the meat may have been in the freezer a bit too long. (Carpaccio is always made from frozen beef, so it can be sliced paper-thin.)

Zuppa di vongole , however, is intensely on the mark. You get about a half-dozen steamed littleneck clams in a spicy, fairly salty tomato broth, and you can smell the garlic on them halfway to Sorrento. The crunchy, golden brown focaccia that accompanies them is nothing short of sensational.

Both entrees and pastas come with either soup du jour or a house salad. Go for the soup, which is apt to be a delicate lentil distinguished by a rich stock, or perhaps a hearty white bean. (I'm not crazy about this salad, ordinary iceberg lettuce with an overly pungent vinaigrette.)

The pastas (other than penne) are made in Portofino's kitchen. There is a lot to like about tortelloni con crema di pomodoro , given the oddball shape. Think of these tortelloni as pasta packages about the size of Christmas cards and stuffed with a soft filling made from ground veal, spinach and cheese. I like the chewy pasta sheets they are composed of, and the rosy tomato-cream sauce that comes on top.

Spaghetti puttanesca , however, is a major disappointment. The main ingredients in this classic are anchovies, capers and black olives, foils for a spicy marinara sauce. You'll have to squeeze your eyes shut to taste any anchovies in this dish, though, because the rest of the condiments have been scorched.

The entrees, mostly veal, chicken or fish, can be a dicey proposition. A lunch entree, pollo con cinque erbe , manages to be almost completely tasteless. You can see the five herbs, all right, scattered on your boneless medallion of chicken breast, but you can't taste them. Pesce misto alla griglia isn't much different. It's three fish brushed with olive oil and cooked on a grill, and believe it or not, it's a task to tell the salmon, the swordfish and the sea bass apart.

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