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RESTAURANT REVIEW / MARCELLO : The Italian Eatery Offers Fare That's Flavorful and Right Price


If you dined at the fashionable Rex in Los Angeles a few years ago, you dealt with the solicitous dining room captain Tino, whose real name is Austin Di Marcello, a Naples native. Tino has since headed for the kitchen, this one in Thousand Oaks, where he and partner Pietro Rizzuti, a Torino, Italy, transplant, have for the past three years run the restaurant Marcello.

This is good news for those with a nose and palate for pared-down Italian fare. Take a seat in the simple tile-floored, cream-colored, sconce-lighted dining room, and a tiny bruschetta arrives, on the house: Its sparkling tomato, fresh basil, oil-brushed yeasty bread and heady chunks of garlic are the first tip-off that Marcello takes straight aim at delivering broad-beamed flavors and vivid sights.

If in doubt, try one of the two most successful dishes ordered in recent visits: a rustic appetizer (and a Tino original) that combines borlotti beans and mushrooms over toasted bread. Simple enough, surely, but nuanced in flavor.

The beans, which have cooked in their own soaking water with bay leaf and prosciutto, were dressed with garlic-sauteed mushrooms, olive oil, salt and pepper. The result was restorative and perilously compelling. In the reviewing business, one samples in order to taste widely; alas, I ate fully, stunned to join the Italian farmer tradition of wanting to call it quits after one satisfying bowlful ($6.50) and half a glass of house red ($3.75 the full glass, a humble Folonari Cabernet).

The other winner? A truly memorable preparation of spinach gnocchi adrift in a moat of pink sauce ($10.50), or tomato with cream and red-pepper puree. The fresh pasta pillows, dense with large flecks of spinach, were air-light; the sauce fragrant, bright in flavor, and improbably light. Split as a first course, one could hardly do better in getting acquainted with Marcello's unpretentious but disciplined approach to things.

Still, everything wasn't perfect, and so there's bad news to report, too. Fish entrees, as a rule, suffered from overcooking. A visually arresting special in which strips of cod and salmon were woven together and laced with rosemary and olive oil ($14.50) was done perfectly in the cod and dried out in the salmon--a hazard in joining two fish that don't swim together when it comes to critical cooking times.

A grilled marinated baby salmon ($13.50), dried in the grilling, wanted for flavor altogether. And a special of fish stew over linguine ($16.50), while delicate and succulent in its white fish fillet, was Goodyear rubber in its mussels.

The concept, saucing and presentation in all these dishes was otherwise exemplary--like most things at Marcello--so it is particularly distressing that the extra minute of heat, or poor timing on shellfish infusion, ends up ruining so much effort.

Seafood did find one reprieve, however, in the calamari appetizer ($7.50). Extremely tender baby squid in fresh tomato sauce, with capers and olives, proved that a few ingredients handled quickly and without fuss can yield a terrific set of flavors. (Indeed, there are few better examples of simple triumphs than another appetizer, grilled vegetables ($6.50), in which a half head of radicchio, thick tomato and potato slices, strips of eggplant and bell peppers were brushed with oil and quickly charred over the fire. The result: an intensely al fresco flavor and scent, with delicate textures intact.)

Go with Marcello's meat entrees. Ossobuco ($15.50), or braised veal shank, is offered with a dense Barolo wine sauce, but as a special arrived in a lighter incarnation, surrounded by risotto with mushrooms and buried beneath a colorful cascade of perfectly cooked julienne of vegetables. The shank was tender and drew deep flavors from its slow-pan cooking, marrow included; the vegetables were bright and an oddly successful counterpoint to the rich meat; the risotto, however, was of the Easy Listening variety, lacking the density of flavor and firmness of texture that it should.

Chicken with capers and white wine ($12.50) was perfect in the cooking and had sharp flavor; veal sauteed in lemon and butter, likewise, was nicely seared, succulent within, and brightly sauced.

While not an entree, a meat-and-cornmeal appetizer, taken in combination, perhaps, with the grilled vegetables, would make a lovely meal: grilled polenta with fiery sausage, split and grilled, on top ($6.50). In many ways, a dish such as this, along with the beans and mushrooms over bread, defines what Marcello does best.

For dessert, do not pass up the creme brulee ($4.50), its caramel glaze crackled from the broiler, and its deep, cool custard was dense in flavor and texture. And if it is available as a special, experience the rather severe decadence of chocolate ricotta cheesecake ($4.50), a rare and memorable interpretation in its ultra-tart cocoa quotient.

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