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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

Enjoyable Italia Mia Hits the Spot

October 29, 1992|DAVID NELSON

If you didn't know better, you might be forgiven for supposing that a unique zoning law in this county decrees that not only must there be one neighborhood shopping center located every few hundred yards along principal thoroughfares, but that each must contain at least one Italian restaurant.

It seems inevitable that a new commercial center on the Poway stretch of Pomerado Road houses a place called Italia Mia. Following the common pattern, the restaurant occupies the central section of the structure, or the angle at which the two wings join. It might be said that the Italian boot has been fitted into the building's elbow. And that's fine, since much of the cooking at this enjoyable restaurant has a definite kick to it.

As it happens, Italia Mia has a classy pedigree, since it is the downscale branch of the decidedly upscale Villa d'Este in Del Mar. The Poway offspring seems the deliberate opposite of the Del Mar parent in virtually every department except quality, which, relative to price, is high at both establishments.

However, the formality of Villa d'Este is replaced at Italia Mia by a pleasant but low-key and casual mood, and the furnishings, if sufficiently comfortable and attractive, would not be considered elegant.

The differences are equally striking on the menu, which, other than a special of the day, utterly avoids the topic of formal entrees. There are instead listings for pizzas, salads and pastas, of which some are traditional, some are innovative and some seem strictly fanciful.

Italia Mia's wood-fired pizza oven no longer is a novelty in these parts, but certainly is welcome. If every pizza place were equipped with one of these we would be that much better off. This oven occupies a place of honor in the large display kitchen, and the flames, which cast a quiet orange glow through the hearth, give a fine color to the plump pies that the pizza cook shuffles in and out with his long-handled wooden shovel. The house foccaccia bread--crusty, fluffy, faintly flavored with herbs and intended to be dipped in olive oil--also is born in this oven.

There are a dozen choices on the pizza list, supplemented by a pair of calzone, or football-shaped packages of dough baked around fillings of cheese with vegetables and sausage. Among the pizzas, the selection runs from the pristinely traditional Margherita (garnished simply with tomato sauce, mozzarella, garlic and basil) to the distinctly contemporary "al pollo gourmet," which copies pies designed elsewhere and tops the dough with barbecued chicken, smoked cheese, red onions and peppery Italian parsley.

If the party is large enough, one of the pizzas might make a good starter. Otherwise, this simple menu offers a few soups and half a dozen salads, all sized for serious eating. The minestrone outshines most versions of this soup served around the county, and is notable for a thick, mellow broth packed with plenty of beans and plenty of flavor.

Among the salads, there is, inevitably, a Caesar, as well as a second Romaine salad tossed with tomatoes and Gorgonzola cheese. A couple are portioned as entrees, including the "tre re," Thai-inspired and composed of chicken, peanuts, cilantro and a spicy peanut dressing. This seems out of place in the surroundings, but then, the world is changing. A good introduction to one of the pastas would be the insalata mista , which despite the name is more than a simple collection of greens; it includes chick peas, shredded cheese, tomatoes, olives and pepperoni.

The menu devotes the most space to the pastas, some traditional--lasagna, manicotti, spaghetti in meat sauce--and some peculiar to Italia Mia. As has happened much lately, with varying results, the pasta extends far beyond its original role and frequently is so heavily garnished that it ceases to be Italian and seems basically a full meal bedded on noodles.

A prime example of this would be the fettuccine cardinale , which tosses spinach pasta with creamed tomato sauce and adds a garnish of sliced sausage, slivered bell peppers and mushrooms, crisp pancetta bacon and large chunks of chicken. It is tasty, and certainly filling, but it isn't really Italian. More in the traditional mood, the capellini with shrimp is lightly sauced and flavorful to the last bite.

The kitchen prepares the desserts, and in addition to the ubiquitous tiramisu there are a ricotta cheesecake and a light, if lusciously rich, creme brulee . The steamy house espresso goes well with any of these.

Italia Mia

14771 Pomerado Road, Poway

Calls: 679-9300

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Cost: Pizzas and pastas $6.75 to $8.75; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $40.

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