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Family-Style Pasta House Offers Mild-Mannered Fare

March 26, 1992|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

Those of us who remember Remington's, which closed early last summer after ruling the range as the county's leading steak house for nearly a decade, recall the immense portions, the superb quality and the prices that at times seemed to rival the national debt.

The grandiosity of this plush Del Mar establishment could be more than a little annoying, but for lobster bisque, remarkable steaks and fried potatoes it knew no peer. And while a declaration of bankruptcy ultimately closed the doors, there is no question that, for the longest time, the only motto suitable to Remington's was "Nothing succeeds like excess."

At about the same time that a team of weightlifters wrestled Remington's final serving of beef tenderloin onto a platter, a new chain called The Pasta House International opened its first outlet in Palm Desert. Less than a year later, Pasta House has brought its low-priced "family restaurant" concept to Del Mar and enshrined it in the same quarters in which Remington's' expense-account crowd once played Russian roulette with the wine card.

The concept of family dining is always a little off-putting, since it implies recipes toned down to a level inoffensive to juvenile tastes, when, in fact, Junior could be raised to like good food from toddlerhood (this happens in other countries). The Pasta House menu is regressive in local terms, since it takes a giant step backward to the menus served by the modest Italian restaurants that dominated here a decade ago, in the spaghetti-ravioli-lasagna era that preceded the Great Pasta Revolution. The predictability of the Pasta House menu is equaled by the cooking.

Locations are, of course, only spaces with potential, and there is no point in comparing the Pasta House with the previous tenant. But as little as the newcomer and Remington's otherwise have in common, the predilection for generous servings continues.

Pastas, portioned in vast quantity, range from $6.95 to $11.95 (a supplementary list labeled "classic entrees," which can be summarized by the mention of veal parmigiana, is priced at $10.95 to $16.95), and all meals include both a short cup of minestrone and a salad. The soup is OK, if on the bland side; the salad, crisp and fresh but based on pedestrian ingredients, would benefit from a dressing with some discernible flavor.

A dip of raw chopped tomatoes, garlic and basil accompanies the house bread and could be considered a sort of Italian salsa; this is a nice idea, although the cottony bread leaves much to be desired. (This same uncooked "sauce" garnishes the vermicelli checca , a light and relatively pleasing pasta, which, to those interested in empiricism, shows that the checca tomato mixture tastes better warm than cold.) The same bread, treated to a basting of garlic, oil and basil and heated in the oven, costs extra but satisfies much more.

The pasta list reads like a trip down memory lane for those who remember the spaghetti houses (mostly still extant) that were virtually the only local Italian options just a decade ago. It opens, naturally, with spaghetti in marinara sauce, and goes on to the same pasta dressed up with either meat or mushroom sauce, linguine with red or white clam sauce, fettuccine Alfredo, spaghetti with meatballs, manicotti, ravioli, lasagna and vegetarian lasagna.

Digressions largely take the shape of additions, as in fettuccine Primavera (here, if not everywhere, Alfredo with vegetables added), fettuccine Alfredo with chicken, and mostaccioli with either chicken or sausage. Pushed to the limit, the list offers spinach tortellini with Gorgonzola sauce and gnocchi (potato dumplings) with both tomato and Gorgonzola sauces. When tasted, the spaghetti with meatballs seemed pretty much a metaphor for the menu at large: Mildly flavored, predictable and served with generosity rather than finesse.

The Pasta House International

2010 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar

Calls: 792-8166

Hours: Dinner nightly

Cost: Pastas and entrees $6.95 to $16.95; dinner for two, including one glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $30 to $50

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