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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Tame Taste of Italy : Il Terrazzo brings Tuscan cuisine to Newhall. But don't expect the flavors to leap out all the time.

February 19, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My rancher friend up in Canyon Country, though he likes to pose as a "country cousin," counts himself better off than most of us down below who subject ourselves to urban stress. But even he doesn't deny that Italian restaurants where you can get carpaccio and black linguine are few and far between in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Give it time. A place called Il Terrazzo is now open in Newhall, making it unnecessary for those in the vicinity to drive long distances for timely Italian dishes.

A press kit about the restaurant trumpets "don't look for spaghetti with meatballs on Il Terrazzo's menu." The advice seems reasonable enough. You can expect to find lots of Tuscan grilled dishes and light pasta preparations, but no pizzas, no chicken cacciatore and, above all, no garlic bread. (In fact, hardly any bread at all. Good fresh bread is brought out on an attractive wooden plank, but for some reason, the house is particularly stingy with it.)

Most of the menu is in the northern Italian vein, though southern-style red sauces make unscheduled (and generally welcome) appearances from time to time, as if someone in the kitchen wants to hedge all bets. In fact, hedge-betting is the order of the day. Many dishes have been prepared in a way that makes it seem the chef is afraid to let his flavors jump out with abandon.

You won't quibble about it being a pretty restaurant. One dining area is in the same room as the restaurant's woodsy bar, an elegant, comfy salon with sponged rust-colored walls, arty black-and-white photography and a rustic tile floor. The other room, let's call it the terrace room ( il terrazzo is Italian for the terrace), is the narrower and more intimate of the two, a room with beautiful French doors that open fully to the outside--weather permitting, of course.

No matter where you sit, though, the place is pleasant. The chairs are functionally straight-backed and well-cushioned, for example, and tables are appointed with white linen and fresh flowers. Furthermore, service is solicitous and efficient since the management obviously aims to please. On two separate occasions, someone in my party indicated displeasure with a dish and the offending items were whisked away without argument and deleted from the check.

Antipasto such as fried calamari and sauteed spinach with pine nuts are equally pleasant. The spinach is simple and straightforward, with the addition of toasted pine nuts adding an almost Chinese edge. The calamari, in the form of good crispy ringlets, soars for another reason. It's provided with a sneaky bowlful of heady, flavorful marinara sauce, as if to say, "Take that, tomato-avoiding Tuscan infidel."

There are disappointments, too. I don't care much for the gawky house bruschetta , essentially lightly grilled bread with an unwieldy pile of checca (chopped tomato with fresh basil and garlic) piled up on it. Vegetable soup can be unreasonably tart here, grilled vegetables somewhat on the scorched side. But do insist on the wild mushroom of the day, especially if it happens to be the meaty, marvelous portobello. The kitchen grills it and then serves it on a light salad. It's as good as prime steak.

Pastas are pretty reliable at Il Terrazzo. Farfalle --a bow-tie shaped pasta--comes with ethereal bits of cooked salmon and asparagus in a rosy pink sauce, while in the rigatoni freschi , large, ribbed macaroni get treated to grilled eggplant, chopped tomato and a large heap of soft ricotta cheese. Homemade black linguine is a winner, although the spicy Italian sausage and sweet pepper sauce it showcases makes a strong statement. Try homemade tagliolini simply crowned with tomato and fresh basil instead if you want a dish that is simple and satisfying.

The list of main dishes ( secondi piatti ) is small and somewhat unoriginal. Maybe that's the reason carpaccio , traditionally an appetizer, is listed with the main dishes here. Two grilled dishes, paillard and dry-aged shell steak, are the stars. The paillard is chicken breast pounded flat, delicious with its accompaniment of a few vegetables and fried potatoes. The steak is even better: tender, tasty meat worthy of a top steakhouse.

The dessert list is also rather short. If you're lucky, you'll come on a day when they serve their best dessert, an off-menu chocolate bread cake ( panforte ) that is filled with dried fruits and strong flavors. Romantics can choose chocolate-covered strawberries, floating in a light chocolate sauce and smothered in hand-whipped cream.

And then there is tirami su , the luscious dessert of ladyfingers dipped in espresso with a blanket of light mascarpone cheese cream. On the Westside, it's a cliche these days, but you won't find it on just any street corner up here in the Santa Clarita Valley--not yet anyway.

Where and When Location: Il Terrazzo, 23548 Lyons Ave., Plaza Posada, Newhall. Suggested dishes: Fried calamari, $7.95; wild mushroom of the day, $9.95; rigatoni freschi , $10.95; dry-aged shell steak, $18.95. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, till 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Price: Dinner for two, $30 to $50. Full bar. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Call: (805) 255-9989.

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