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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Mediterraneo a Cucina Moderato

April 23, 1993|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Part espresso bar, part cucina Italiana, Mediterraneo is part of the new wave of post-'80s cafes: the clattery wide-open bistro that has become more introverted, quiet, tranquil. Paintings of angels and angelic people hang on pale marbleized yellow walls. A small wood fire is burning in a great stone hearth, the dominant architectural feature left over from the former, short-lived Hearth restaurant. The tables are wood. There is sidewalk dining. Prices are moderate. The menu is what we've now come to expect: pizza, pasta, salad, etc.

Many of the customers seem to walk in off the street. Mediterraneo is a safe, quiet place to dine alone. And there's a steady trickling of folks who seem to come from the line at the always packed Authentic Cafe a few doors down. They come to Mediterraneo, peer at the menu, step inside, look around, shrug their shoulders, choose a table. If there's resignation, it's the resignation of a city deluged with Italian food. We loved Northern Italian and nouvelle Italian when it was new. And now? It's OK. It's inexpensive. It's available. It'll do.

The name may suggest the bright sun and vibrant blue sea of Italy, but in reality, there is something so low-key about Mediterraneo, it's almost soporific.

"Sit anywhere," says a waiter or host or manager, who himself sits back down at a table. Indeed, I've never seen the place more than three-fourths full. The service is also subdued--perfunctory, yet friendly enough.

*

Once our order is taken, a basket of bread is set down along with a small plate of olive oil with chopped garlic and rosemary leaves for dipping. On my first visit, we received cubes of pizza bread that was like some kind of very salty sponge. On each successive visit, the bread has improved: The last time, coarse, thick-cut slabs were definitely edible.

The salads are all simple and acceptable. The Caesar is big and juicy. The tricolore and the insalata mista are dressed at the table. After the first time the waitress blithely poured on first balsamic vinegar and then olive oil in equal measure, we learned to stop her before she started, and ask for a lighter touch with the vinegar. Insalata caprese , fresh mozzarella, basil and tomato, will improve as tomatoes come into season this summer.

Twice, I was disappointed by the mixed grilled vegetables; the discs of eggplant were barely warmed, and the paper-thin slices of zucchini were too few. What's worse, the skimpy ingredients weren't grilled enough. At $5.95 for a few cents worth of vegetables, this is the only dish at Mediterraneo that seems extravagantly over-priced.

The pizza suffers from uninspired crust-making. In a city where there's a range of sublime crusts--from bubbly and crackery to blistered and chewy--Mediterraneo's could hardly be less distinctive or interesting. It holds the toppings. It does the job. Period. Even the wood-fired oven can't do much to redeem it. The Quattro Formaggi with fontina, mozzarella, Gorgonzola and Parmesan cheese is perfectly OK. The Napoletana is a livelier, snappier pie with capers, anchovies and oregano tucked between the tomato sauce and sheet of melted mozzarella.

*

Pastas are served in generous amounts in big white bowls. The rigatoni in a light tomato cream sauce is related in flavor to something my mother would make from Campbell's tomato soup: It's a little plain. Better is the talgiatelle primavera , broccoli, carrots, tomatoes and onions in a light cream sauce on long, flat noodles. I was most disappointed in the orecchiette con salsiccia e escarole. I expected little ear-shaped pasta tossed with sausage and escarole. What I got was the pasta in tomato sauce with a few crumbles of sausage and a very few shreds of escarole.

Entrees are simple, square meals. I quite like the homemade Italian sausage, split open and grilled until crunchy on the outside. It comes with a square of grilled polenta and a small heap of good grilled peppers. A roasted half of a chicken with roasted rosemary potatoes is another exercise in basics.

Coffees here are decent if not remarkable, and come in oversized white cups that are satisfying to hold. I'm particularly fond of the latte caldo , steamed milk with honey. That, along with the low-key ambience at Mediterraneo, will send you into the night deliciously sleepy, ready for bed.

* Mediterraneo, 7615 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 937-5808. Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. No alcohol. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $23 to $41.

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