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At Pasta Manana, Mexican, Italian Fare Are Happily Married

February 04, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

"Blendo" cuisine marches on at Pasta Manana, an Anaheim restaurant that describes itself as a cantina combining "a bit of Italy with a taste of Mexico."

You know blendo if you've eaten at Ciao Mein in Irvine, which attempted to marry Italian cuisine with Chinese, or Long Beach's short-lived Pavarotti and Stein--which did the same with Italian and Jewish.

This time, the marriage may last. Italy and Mexico rely heavily on many of the same ingredients--garlic, tomatoes, cheese and flour--and their dishes taste good together. Anyway, we'll see.

It's no surprise to learn that old pro Larry Cano, founder of El Torito and owner of several local restaurants tending to Southwestern cuisine, is behind this. Cano and his Maverick Restaurant Group have taken the former Luigi's Pasta House and made it more festive and colorful than ever, decorating the peach-colored walls and corny Italian arches with tropical plants and Mexican objets d'art, bestowing a bright, airy appeal upon the place.

Someone should have replaced the weird airport-style lounge booths with their tacko green Formica tabletops, but the lighthearted approach to service puts anyone in a forgiving mood. The waiters are engaging and outgoing, a real hoot. Just for fun, these guys spin a rondalla , or wheel of fortune, during mealtimes. If the wheel lands on the number matching the one on the card you get from your waiter, your dinner is free.

Start at the terrific salsa bar, where you can load up little monkey dishes with ruddy guajillo , grainy chipotle and tasty quemada salsas, all of which make your basket of fresh, hot, rainbow-colored tortilla chips into a magnificently good appetizer.

Then proceed to an icy, hand-shaken margarita (a Cano trademark) or a Bellini, the cocktail made from peach nectar and sparkling wine that is de rigueur in trendy Italian restaurants. Then you should be ready to dig into the restaurant's substantial menu.

Pizzas are the real surprise: soft, crusty pies with a variety of bicultural toppings. A classic pizza margherita is the simplest, made with fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic; senorita fajita is the most Mexican, topped with seasoned steak, bell peppers, onions and tomatoes. But it is pollo barbacoa that steals the show with its barbecued chicken breast, red onions, cilantro and subtly sweet red sauce. This is one of the best pizzas I've had anywhere, and I'm coming back just to eat another.

If you plan to have such appetizers as baked mozzarella marinara, nachos, fried calamari or quesadillas--all of which are generic and reasonably good--you'll probably end up making a meal of them. For $7.50 you can get all four on the restaurant's huge La Famiglia platter, a great deal.

But I recommend bypassing the appetizers in favor of the good pastas and main dishes, most of which are substantial--and embarrassingly high in calories.

The pastas, bless their hearts, are all tasty, but they're a trifle overcooked. Juan's smoked chili pasta is the best. It's a heap of fettuccine with sweet corn, more of that good barbecued chicken breast, grilled vegetables and a smoked jalapeno cream sauce that would do any French sauce chef proud. Ask for your penne arriabbiata extra spicy, and you're on your own. The spicy marinara on these little pasta tubes is made with enough red chili to launch a missile.

Other pastas are solidly tasty, mostly holdovers from the former Luigi's. There are the familiar linguine clams--with a choice of white or red sauce, for example--that old standby spaghetti and meatballs (the meatballs tasting suspiciously like Mexican albondigas ) and a properly sloppy lasagna.

Main dishes are found on a section of the menu trumpeting "the best of both worlds." That may be a flowery description, but some of the creations are worth a try.

Torte Azteca is the one I'll remember longest. It looks like a cross between an Italian timballo and a Navajo burial mound--layers of corn crepes baked with chicken, chilies and a soft cheese, shaped round in the center of a large plate and then blanketed with a New Mexico red chili sauce and drizzled with crema fresca. The flavors mingle nicely, but the dish is so heavy you probably won't finish half.

The oven-roasted half chicken is far more modest. It's served with too-dry Mexican rice and borracho (which means "drunk") beans, which are small pinto beans in a soupy stock. Ask the kitchen to hold the sauce. It's the same smoked jalapeno cream sauce that comes on the smoked chili pasta, and it makes the chicken too rich.

As for Mario's steak pizzaiola --well, no surprises here. This is a good, saute of New York steak topped with garlic, oregano and tomatoes. The kitchen's evident intentions to submerge you in calories become clear when you learn that the accompanying pasta is a creamy fettuccine Alfredo.

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