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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Milano's Dolce Vita : Second local restaurant in small chain encourages sharing of dishes. The pastas are good, but some of the dishes tend to be too sweet.

March 26, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The high-rise, high-concept granite jungle that is downtown Glendale has just added another feather to its cap. Milano's Italian Kitchen is the second restaurant in our area belonging to a small chain that spans San Francisco, Chicago and Woodland Hills.

Sharing is part of the concept here, and just to be contrary, a couple of us decided to roll the rock up the conceptual hill and bring a bunch of kids--perhaps not natural sharers--to this restaurant. It was just the sort of experiment the child psychologist Piaget might have dreamed up.

At first, they were overwhelmed by the sheer audacity of the place. The restaurant is housed in a downtown Glendale high-rise that is a veritable city of giant red and white granite blocks. One 6-year-old described the setting as "Cookie Monster Lego."

But then they settled into just being kids, "oohing" and "aahing" at the cavernous dining area, colored yellow and brown like a Tuscan sunset; the sight of an open kitchen; the cushy raised booths and the oddball lanterns--circular panes of marbled glass that look like alien ships slowly descending to Earth.

One of the restaurant's features is a slightly unpalatable wine labeled simply "California Chianti," poured from communal gallon jugs on every table. Furthermore, all the faux slate-topped tables are adorned with stacks of goofy little appetizer plates, the better for facilitating the sharing idea.

Now, I admit there is an initial glee in having these huge portions of salads, pastas and desserts brought around by the enthusiastic team of fresh-faced waiters who constantly pepper you with questions like "How do you like everything so far?" But if you bring children to a restaurant like this, you can throw this type of civility straight out the window. As soon as you get the pizza profumata (topped with smoked chicken), they'll probably start tearing the thing to pieces like a pack of crazed wolves.

I can understand why. This pizza has the sort of primal sweetness that is far more of a turn-on for kid palates than for the rest of us. It also has a slightly doughy crust, and the topping features gooey fontina cheese and sugary caramelized onions. It's upscale Chuck E. Cheese's fare.

To be sure, for every dish like that one, there is something a kid wouldn't touch for a new bicycle. Milano's oddball polenta cup is a rather stiff heap of white cornmeal, hollowed out and filled with a tasty vegetable ragout of roasted peppers, black olives, broccoli and spicy marinara sauce.

I rather like antipasto Milano, mostly because it is such a generous version. You get a large platter of Genoa salami, good prosciutto, soft clumps of bocconcini mozzarella and some mixed grilled vegetables, all dribbled with extra-virgin olive oil. At one of Milano's other restaurants, I liked the Oriental lime chicken salad ( frisee , butter lettuce and radicchio, loaded up with peanuts, crisped spaghettini and tender strips of sesame chicken), but the one here came out far too sweet. The kids swept down on it like hawks.

Adults are on safe ground with the pastas. Zebra panzottini are black-and-white striped semolina pillows filled with ricotta and spinach; linguine alla vongole has a forward, honest clam flavor; the newly conceived orecchiette aromatiche ("little ears") swim in a rich rosemary balsamic cream sauce.

Grilled specialties are a bit dicier. Lomabata di manzo is a tasty, wood-flavored, char-broiled steak--a trifle tough, perhaps, but not bad at all for the price. Pollo alla diavola is completely inedible, though. All you can taste is the lemon in the marinade.

Our young friends went wild for the oversized desserts. They gobbled up the terrific hazelnut cake and the rich chocolate rum layer cake.

It was the tirami su that seemed to exact particularly savage impulses from these little tykes. Maybe it was the tender ladyfinger crust, maybe it was the sweet, soft mascarpone filling. But to be scientific, of course, maybe it's just this crazy world we live in.

GET WHERE/WHEN HED HERE

Location: Milano's Italian Kitchen, 525 N. Brand Ave., Glendale.

Suggested Dishes: antipasto Milano, $7.95; zebra panzottini , $8.95; lombata di manzo , $9.95; chocolate rum cake, $4.75.

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3-10 p.m. Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $20-$35. Parking in rear structure (free on evenings and weekends). Full bar. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (818) 244-1150.

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