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DAVID NELSON/ON RESTAURANTS

Always Room For Another Good Italian Restaurant

June 11, 1992|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

Yes, there are more Italian restaurants in North County than you could shake a sheaf of spaghetti at--but room always can be made for another good one. As of the present, noteworthy places are not in oversupply.

Oggi--pronounce it as you will, although "oh, gee!" might be something of an overstatement--brings a credible brand of Italian cooking to the El Camino Real strip in Oceanside. This busy commercial area is extremely well-stocked with eateries but is by no means over-endowed with places that make you want to rush back for another close encounter with the plat du jour .

In a neighborhood overwhelmingly dominated by chain establishments, family-run Oggi presents a shapely face to the world. The interior layout, evidently designed to set the gastric juices flowing, opens at the entrance with refrigerated cases that display seafood salads, marinated vegetables, other homemade antipasti and a wide variety of fancy cakes and pastries, again prepared exclusively on the premises. (Fussy and almost rococo in appearance, some of these cakes frankly look a little amateurish, but the pine nut cookies are great.) Bright, richly colored murals add delightful style to the small dining rooms--the ones in the back are lined with windows, open to the scenery and reminiscent of the outdoor terraces that surround Italian villas. Oggi, by and large, is a very pleasant restaurant, a comment that would encompass the friendly service were the staff better organized.

Although the chef is from Bari, in the Southern province of Apulia, the menu surveys many of the styles of the Italian boot. One most unusual feature is the separate heading for special, a la carte vegetable dishes. Choices include a whole cauliflower (recommended for a party of two or more) cooked in a cream cheese sauce colored with a bit of tomato, and melanzane alla campanella , or eggplant with capers, fresh tomato sauce and several cheeses. The scarola alla scafese , or escarole sauteed in olive oil with garlic and a wine tomato sauce, sounds absolutely plush, and an effort was made to sample it; but on an evening when the service failed on several counts, the dish never appeared. Formal entrees include the choice of a (very large) side of pasta in good tomato sauce, or the mixed vegetables of the day, well cooked and served in their own bowl in a heady bath of garlic butter.

The wood-fired oven turns out a fine variety of pizzas, including a Genoese "rotolo" with pesto, sausage and cheeses. Perhaps even better, since every table gets a healthy portion, is focaccia bread, which arrives hot from the oven and is fluffy, crisp, rich, flecked with rosemary and perfect when dipped in olive oil poured from the bottle on the table. You tend to eat this so quickly that the last bite is as hot as the first.

Starters include marinated items from the display cases; beef carpaccio ; a typical meat-and-cheese antipasto plate and baked clams flavored with oregano. There are typical soups (minestrone, tortellini in chicken broth) and a rather too basic house salad--but for an immense change of pace, try the Caesar, itself very well made, in a version that replaces the usual croutons with snippets of fried calamari. This is so large that it either should be shared or eaten as a main item.

The pasta list, divided into four categories, presents little that is unfamiliar, but is likable for the breadth of its scope, which encompasses spinach-and-cheese manicotti in a shellfish sauce, gnocchi with pesto, spicy rigatoni alla matriciana and a risotto (rice stew) with mixed seafood.

On the whole, the seafood entrees (roasted grouper, a seafood "mixed grill" and grilled sea scallops in tomatoed cream sauce among them) seem the more interesting, but the party went with veal anyway--and was satisfied if not overwhelmed by the results. A dish of veal scallops alla pizzaiola was good enough, the fresh tomato sauce light and zesty, but flavored primarily by thick garlic slices that had been cooked nearly to the acrid stage. The "stuffed" veal parmigiana, actually a layering of eggplant, prosciutto and veal topped with tomato and mozzarella, was more than generous in size and about average in flavor. Other entree choices include pounded chicken breast rolled around sausage, a grilled beef filet with mushrooms and roasted peppers, and the cream and cheese-drenched veal "velvet."

OGGI

2216 El Camino Real, Oceanside

Calls: 966-0065

Hours: Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday, closed Mondays.

Cost: Pastas and entrees $8.50 to $16.95; dinner for two, with a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $30 to $65.

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