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RESTAURANTS

Classy, Casual Raffaello Is in Good Company in Orange

June 25, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Tustin Avenue is getting to be the Restaurant Row of Orange. The street long has had good Chinese cafes and other ethnic eateries such as the first-rate Persian restaurant Darya, and lately dining on this strip has taken an upscale turn.

Just look at Raffaello, a classy but casual dinner house already drawing good-sized crowds. It's modeled after Italian restaurants in the tonier Orange County neighborhoods, but with easier-going prices.

Chalk that up to pure savvy. Principals Mario Petrillo and Anne Pattis are former employees of the highly successful Antonello in South Coast Plaza Village, as are executive chef Francois Lieutand, sous-chefs Camillo Ortiz and Alberto Paz and pizza man Marcellino Ortiz. They know what brings people in.

Don't think of the restaurant as Antonello East, though. Where Antonello's dining room is a scale model of an Italian street with upper-class appointments, as precious as a Disneyland facade, Raffaello is a brassy, light-filled rectangle with a modestly appointed but spacious dining room separated from the huge open kitchen by a shiny railing.

Green is abundant in here, from the forest-green tablecloths and dark green carpet to the eccentric woodwork framing the frosted glass overhead. It's probably this relaxing color scheme that gives Raffaello its air of bright informality.

That informality is one of Raffaello's greatest attractions--though the staff doesn't seem entirely to grasp this fact, to judge from the occasional attempts at starchy formality. Ornately folded napkins arch skyward from wine glasses like silly giant bread sticks. Waiters and busboys comport themselves with a solemnity better suited to the exclusive joints. Relax, and party on, fellas--you're in Orange , here.

Raffaello may lack both the gravity of a fancy place and the personality of classic trattoria, but it doesn't miss much else. Your meal begins with one of the best hot focaccias around--a yeasty, salty bread that you eat with dressing fashioned from the olive oil and balsamic vinegar already sitting in tiny cruets on your table. This bread is baked in the restaurant's white-tiled wood oven, a monument to good eating visible from practically every table. The bread is merely a broad hint of things to come. Raffaello's pizza, baked in the same oven, is terrific.

Antipasto misto "Raffaello" is my favorite cold appetizer; I'd say the calamari and pizza preparations are the best hot ones. I like the antipasto because it is unconventional. One component is tonno e fagioli, cooked tuna marinated in olive oil resting on a bed of fat white beans and sweet onion in a balsamic vinegar dressing. The antipasto also includes soft buffalo mozzarella, ripe tomato slices, sweet basil and good prosciutto cut razor-thin, all piled up in layers.

Raffaello prides itself for keeping a deep fryer expressly for its fried calamari, and the taste of the good, crisp batter is unusually pure. (The chunky marinara sauce on the side really doesn't add much.) But once you taste Raffaello's grilled calamari--calamari all' aceto balsamico, on the menu--you may never go back to the deep-fried kind. The grilled version is not quite as tender but much more flavorful. It's simply prepared with balsamic vinegar, garlic, radicchio and olive oil; sprinkle it with lemon juice and you have a small miracle.

Now for the pizzas--light, puffy creations with good toppings and crusts that make you want to eat the whole thing. It's easy to forgive this corrupt interpretation of quattro stagioni, a pizza Raffaello prepares with marinated artichoke hearts, Marsala-soaked porcini mushrooms, diced ham and sauteed shrimp. The concept on most menus is for the "four seasons" to be represented on different quadrants of the pizza--that is, four separate toppings--but Raffaello mixes everything together, with delicious results.

The equally muddled pizza dello chef is even better. This one has cubed chicken, fresh tomato, sun-dried tomato and spinach, toppings that were made for each other.

The pastas tend toward similar muddle, but in their case the richness and overabundance of ingredients produce more uncertain results. Linguine pescatora tries too hard; it's piled with clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, garlic, herbs and a thick red sauce. Spaghetti al cacio e pepe, by contrast, succeeds by its simplicity. The noodles are chewy and fresh, and elegantly flavored with olive oil, black pepper, garlic and goat cheese.

The back page of the menu is a showcase for white and red meats. Veal is classed as a white meat here, and offered in classic scallopines as well as in the rustic osso buco. This is a huge and flavorful dish of veal shank with its own marrow in a rich red wine sauce on a bed of penne , and it's big enough for two. Real white meat eaters can look to polletto allo spiedo. The chefs brush the grilled Cornish hen with balsamic vinegar and pair off pieces with pearl onions.

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