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RESTAURANT REVIEW / MARIO'S RISTORANTE : Nautical but Nice : The establishment offers dependable Italian cuisine and a view of the coast, but doesn't deck you with seafront trappings.

March 18, 1993|LEONARD REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Waterfront dining is so often fraught with pitfalls: nautically themed decor (look at the nets overhead!), nautically themed entrees (skipper's bivalve delight!), nautically themed servers (Hi, I'm Deckhand Bill, your server tonight!). When all that's sought is a fresh piece of fish, Disneyland is served up.

Happily, Mario's Ristorante at Harbor Landing, in Channel Islands Harbor, resists such commercial temptation. It is sufficiently self-possessed as to feature dependable Northern Italian cuisine in a lovely dining room whose only relationship to the harbor and sea gulls outside is one of viewing. From a candle-lit table one can dine well and see the sea, or one can simply dine well. It's nice to have the choice.

That's the good news. More troubling is that Mario's has a service problem, but not of the nautically themed kind. The success of one's meal here depends far too much on the staff. While the food is consistent--with notable successes and a few abject failures, to be noted--the waiters here form a disparate lot, some informed and solicitous and others ill-prepared and, if questioned, downright imperious.

First the food. Mario's runs a sort of dual menu: the printed menu and the nightly specials that, it turns out, seem hardly ever to change. But this little deceit also turns out to be serendipitous, because certain among the specials were outstanding and should always be available.

Among appetizers, this includes the large mushroom caps stuffed with delicately seasoned ground veal and laced with a dense, deep Barolo wine sauce ($7). Regular features among appetizers had mixed success: a plate of buffalo mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh tomato and basil ($7) was sparklingly fresh and vivid in flavor; while fried squid ($6.50), heavily promoted by one waiter as "extraordinary, the best," were tough from overcooking and flavorless, not to mention beset by an insipid tomato dipping sauce. How the squid and mushrooms came from the same kitchen is a mystery.

Salads are competent if not memorable. Caesar ($4) is most reliable, as the highly touted radicchio and fennel salad ($4.50) was worth the hype one night, when it was fresh, but a flaccid nightmare another night when it wasn't.

Try instead the minestrone ($3.50), soup as it should be: deeply flavorful and fragrant in the broth, still firm in its pasta and vegetables.

Pastas here are quite rich, and so a less-than-overwhelming approach is to split an entree portion as a shared first course. Try the satisfying paglia e fieno ($13.95), even though what is usually green and yellow fettucine noodles (hence the name, "straw and hay") turned out to be all-yellow, with flecks of spinach thrown in to the luxurious mushroom, cream, and tomato sauce. In its own hybrid way, the dish works wonderfully.

But avoid at all costs the risotto porcini ($14.95), clearly beyond the kitchen's reach: What should be a firm, pungent, heady slush of arborio rice and dark woodsy mushrooms was instead a sodden, runny mass of pale, overboiled rice tossed with flavorless Parmesan and tan hapless mushrooms.

It seems the simpler things work best at Mario's, and this is especially true among entrees. A veal chop special ($22), in which a double-thick chop was stuffed with prosciutto, Fontina cheese, and herbs before pan browning, was outstanding in its tenderness and flavor. Scampi with tomato, garlic, and black olives ($14.95), set in a creamy tomato sauce, showed the same sure hand against overcooking; the shrimp were that-day-fresh, plump, and delicate.

Forget the chicken with pesto ($13.95), unless you like perfectly tender breast fillets marred by flavorless, oily pesto sauce. The same dish, with mushrooms and sweet, nutty Marsala wine, however, is excellent.

Fish was always first-rate. A special of sea scallops ($19), lightly battered, sauteed, and set in an orange-Cognac-cream sauce, couldn't have been more succulent and flavorsome, if rich. A special of grilled salmon filet ($13.95), covered with a filet of eggplant, was original and satisfying, if not what ordered; the waiter had instead promoted salmon with tarragon sauce.

Which brings us to the waiter problem. In the case of the salmon, the waiter, an otherwise eager-to-please fellow, looked at the dish he had just delivered in error and said, when asked: "The sauce is in there." Thank you, it wasn't.

Worse still was the waiter who insisted that a bitter, brown-tinted, thoroughly oxidized bottle of humble Folonari Orvieto ($14) was "as the winemaker intends it." Thank you, it isn't. Not intending to drink it, we engaged him on obtaining another bottle of Orvieto, a light, floral, uncomplicated white when it is right.

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