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Carmelo's: Where the Elite Meet and Eat

April 08, 1993|MAX JACOBSON

Carmelo's, a clubby, engaging Italian restaurant in the very heart of Corona del Mar, is truly a local haunt. There probably isn't a single compelling reason for somebody outside the neighborhood to dine here but, viewed as a whole, the package is hard to resist.

Many of Corona del Mar's homes are blessed with (take this literally) million-dollar views of the town's splendidly placed jetty, and the casual visitor--myself, for instance--may have trouble fathoming why their occupants bother to go out at all. Yet a lot of glittery people leave their homes to dine here. Maybe the cluster of charming Old World appointments that make Carmelo's lazily comfortable has something to do with it.

Let's just assume the locals come to relax in the restaurant's elegant main dining area, a narrow room filled with watercolors, tiles and resplendent mirrors. A sumptuous-looking antipasto table stands directly under a leafy wrought-iron trellis. Of course, the more adventurous can dine alfresco on the restaurant's flagstone patio, where the big draw is listening to cars rush by on Coast Highway. The more sedate can cloister up in the claustrophobic wine room, where diners are separated by glass doors from a lush outdoor garden.

There's also a scene to be made in Carmelo's darkened bar, where men and women of a certain age and financial status gather to socialize. Carmelo's has to be, for this crowd, what Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe are to the baby buster generation. Fine live jazz and steady, personable bartenders don't hurt either.

It all adds up to a restaurant that has managed to stay crowded and successful over the years despite intense competition. If you want proof, check the healthy wait for tables on weekends and the party mood that typically rages late into the night.

Owner Carmelo Manto has recently refurbished his menu, updating it with lighter fare. Don't expect anything earth-shattering in the new dishes and you may come away pleasantly surprised. The food is definitely better than ever.

You'll be greeted by a basket of tepid focaccia and doughy Italian bread, ordinary stuff that squanders the talents of the excellent extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar found in artful ceramic crocks on each table. From that point, though, it's fairly smooth sailing through a large, eclectic menu of dishes that spans Italy from top to bottom.

Pasta e fagioli is typical of what you might start off with. This soup is pleasant and slightly understated with a clean, clear-tasting broth, properly undercooked tube-shaped pasta and a marked shortage of beans, no doubt on purpose. If you want antipasto, you get a selection from that show-off antipasto table in the middle of the room. Expect it to be things such as the eggplant spread caponata, good roasted red peppers and a rich, piquant chicken salad.

Almost everyone seems to order ortaggi piccanti or vegetali grigliati . There's not much difference between the two dishes, both being based on eggplant, zucchini and spinach, but ortaggi piccanti is a saute with lots of skillfully cooked garlic cloves and red pepper, while the vegetali grigliati is grilled. That makes the latter less spicy and definitely less oily.

Primi piatti --starch dishes such as pasta, rice and polenta--are probably the best things to eat here. Despite the fact that Carmelo himself comes from Calabria, about as far as an Italian can get from polenta country, his polenta pasticciata is about the best I've tasted. The soft mound of cornmeal is expertly blended with cheese and butter to shameless richness, then topped with a hearty marinara sauce and chunks of dry spiced Italian sausage.

Ziti ai quattro formaggi , using a small penne-like tube-shaped pasta, comes in an irresistible sauce that must be one part cream for each of the four parts of cheese that the name promises. Traditionalists might sample tagliatelle alla Bolognese, long strands of flat pasta topped with a watered-down version of the classic Italian meat sauce. There's even an oddball take on orecchiette alla Barese , the tiny "ears" of pasta popular in the city of Bari on the Adriatic coast. This one gets away with adding crushed anchovy filets to the expected topping of fresh broccoli and cloves of smoked garlic.

I'm less impressed by Carmelo's main courses ( secondi piatti ), which show a certain want of imagination. Pesce spada al salmoriglo looks great on the menu, but anticipation proves to be the best part of the experience. To me the grilled swordfish with garlic, oregano, Italian parsley, lemon and extra virgin olive oil is just a dryish piece of good fish in a lemon-happy sauce.

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