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Pero's Isn't Afraid of Old-Fashioned Rich Italian

June 03, 1993|MAX JACOBSON

There's a wistful, timeless feeling about Sea Cliff Village, a clapboard mall with a fishing village motif in a rather hard-to-find Huntington Beach location. It's almost eerily quiet, and the faintly salty air smells like the Eastern Shore of Maryland or some small Cape Cod town. I can't quite believe I'm in California.

The life of the party around here is Pero's, a busy Italian restaurant with a menu full of red-sauced pastas and sauteed veal dishes. We Californians abandoned these foods en masse for bruschetta and rotisserie chicken years ago, but they seem to be making a resurgence. Who knows? Maybe it's because of aerobics.

The restaurant belongs to a woman named Maria Xanthakis (nee Purpero), who started the business with her sister Serafina 14 years ago. (Maria bought out Serafina three years back.)

Xanthakis also uses her restaurant as a substitute gallery for local artists. She exhibits art in six-week rotating displays, even holding splashy openings with champagne and hors d'oeuvres from time to time. For the last three weeks the restaurant has been wall to wall with nautical paintings by Ken Jungjohann. You feel as if you're dining in an art collector's home.

But even without the art, Pero's would have a homey, pleasant air and certain obvious charms. The interior is sun-splashed and rough, with a high wooden ceiling and giant exposed ducts that predate the deconstructionist designs of the hipper L.A. restaurants. The best tables are semi-circular booths, separated from the lively bar area by a gaudy brass railing. There's even a cute outdoor patio, should the mood to dine outside strike suddenly.

That is especially apt to occur if you come for breakfast. Pero's is unusual among Orange County dinner houses in being open for breakfast every day of the week. The breakfast crowd consists mainly of locals, and on weekends the place fills up as early as 8:30.

Most people show up for the Italian omelets, called frittatas, or Pero's buttermilk pancakes--buttery dollar-sized cakes, six to an order, made from scratch with about twice the number of eggs any modest pancake recipe employs. These are surely the best pancakes in Huntington Beach, and you can have them topped with bananas, blueberries or strawberries. You can buy batter to take home for $2.25 a pint. Or syrup--Pero's makes its own syrup, a sticky-sweet one without much discernible flavor. Bring your own if you crave a penetrating maple flavor.

It is, of course, a completely different restaurant in the evening.

Xanthakis' Sicilian roots show up in the intensely pungent marinara sauce and peasant-style pasta dishes. Chef Mark Tydell doesn't do much in the way of innovation; his menu is defiantly unhip and unflinchingly rich. All pastas, for example, come in a thick red or a stand-up butter sauce. Meats, mostly chicken and veal, are sauteed, not broiled in the current fashion.

He does, however, try to spice things up a bit. This restaurant, for the record, is also called Pero's Spicery. Wild herbs flourish down here by the sea, so don't be surprised to see the plots of the basil, oregano, parsley, scallions and garlic sprouting up just outside the front door. You'll taste them in what you eat here.

There are no surprises in the antipasto--things such as sauteed mushrooms, sliced tomatoes and fried calamari with lemon and marinara sauce. The mushrooms are pure indulgence, though: large caps broiled in butter, swimming in an oily Marsala wine sauce. Two or three mouthfuls are about all ordinary people can handle.

The calamari are properly crunchy and sweet. I actually prefer them without the accompanying marinara sauce, a slow-cooked puree that works better on pasta.

The tomato salad needs work. A particularly tired domestic mozzarella comes on this version, and lord knows it's hard to get good tomatoes these days. Even the fresh, sweet leaves of home-grown basil interspersed between the slices cannot save this dish.

But if you like a plate of old-fashioned spaghetti and meatballs, or a good veal piccata, you have come to the right place. Big platters of chewy spaghetti come not only with spicy homemade meatballs, but also with toppings such as a terrific garlic sauce, mild Italian sausage or any combination you can dream up.

There are lots of stuffed pastas too, baked in the oven and smothered with cheese: manicotti, cannelloni and lasagna. All are made on the premises.

All the veal is milk fed. The lemony veal piccata--big medallions lightly dredged in flour and then sauteed in butter--comes in a butter sauce so rich you can write your name in it, and with or without capers, your choice. The same tender medallions are also used to make saltimbocca , veal Parmigiana and veal Marsala.

For those who don't care for veal, the kitchen makes the same dishes with boneless chicken instead.

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