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SWEET DREAMS : At Zucchero, It's Hit or Miss With the Food, but the Atmosphere Is Always Delicious

June 06, 1993|Ruth Reichl

Whatever you like, whatever you like, we'll make it for you," says the waiter, smiling down at you. "What do you want?"

You settle into the comfortable elegance of the room, noting the fine architectural details and the warm woods. A big copper pizza oven bellies into the room like a nosy sculpture; when you look outside, you see the reflection of the oven's flames dancing in the window.

Now the waiter is back, bearing a large, crisp disk. He puts it down on the table, hoists a huge bottle of olive oil and drizzles the bright green liquid over the surface. You take a bite of this seductively naked pizza--it is rather herbal, slightly salty, densely delicious. You find it hard not to be happy.

Even when the restaurant is incapable of making you what you want--which is often the case--you find yourself forgiving Zucchero (Italian for sugar) because it is such a reasonable and pleasant place. You will be treated well on your first visit, remembered on your second. "Nice to see you again," I heard a waiter saying to the couple at the next table. "I was your waiter last time and I just came over to say hello."

In a world filled with tryingly trendy Italian restaurants, Zucchero is an enormous relief.

It can also be an enormous irritation. I have never been to such an uneven restaurant: You have to eat your way through every dish on the menu to sort out which ones are wonderful, which terrible, because the menu seems to be evenly divided between the two.

The first time I ate at Zucchero I thought I had discovered a truly wonderful new restaurant. I started the meal with culingiones, plump Sardinian ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta. The touch of brilliance here was the citric edge in the tomato sauce, which punched it up and enlivened the spinach.

Next, there was a salad made of prosciutto, pears and pecorino cheese regally arranged on a bed of arugula. A simple trick, a few luxurious ingredients brought together on a plate, but each enhanced the other. It was a dish that reminded you about the perfection of simplicity.

And then there were the best grilled vegetables I've ever eaten, which arrived on a plate heaped with asparagus, mushrooms, fennel and zucchini. Grilled vegetables can be too tough or too limp, too dry or too greasy. Often grilled vegetables can be too grilled. These were just right.

Game hen was simply marinated in olive oil, garlic and rosemary and grilled until the crisp skin crackled against the tender flesh. Risotto made of porcini mushrooms and Parmesan was just-cooked and slightly soupy in the Venetian manner. Finally there was zabaglione--a delicious cloud of eggs, air and Marsala--and strong cups of espresso.

"Come back, come back," said the maitre d' when we left, "we'll make you anything you want."

I did go back. The whole way there I thought about what I would ask the kitchen to make. First off, a pizza--a wonderful thin crust of a pizza with Fontina, mozzarella, Parmesan and Gorgonzola. I should have stopped there, because next up was a salad made of slivered baby artichokes wrapped in a sheet of Parmesan cheese that was beautiful to look at, but tasted like sawdust. The dish, an Italian classic, requires perfect ingredients. These were not.

Carpaccio, a thin sheet of raw beef topped with arugula, mushrooms and Parmesan, was made with flaccid, watery meat. Spaghetti with bottarga-- the cured mullet roe that is called the "poor man's caviar of Italy"--was awful; with its dry texture and nasty flavor it was all anybody would need to be convinced that eating fish roe is a mistake.

The fish of the day--advertised as Chilean sea bass with bread crumbs, olive oil and garlic--was fine. But it wasn't Chilean sea bass. What arrived was a small, thin, rather fishy fish still wearing its skin, which was about as different from Patagonian Toothfish as it is possible for a fish to be.

And finally there was scaloppina Valdostana, little squares of veal and prosciutto topped with a rubbery mass of melted Fontina cheese. It was terrible.

"Did you like the meal?" asked the waiter happily. I didn't have the heart to tell him no. He smiled. "Come back," he said, "and we'll make you anything you want."

I have been back--a few times. I find that what I want is a pizza, a salad, some culingiones --and a place to relax. During the past couple of months I've been back often enough to discover that Zucchero makes a memorable martini, the driest, coldest version of the drink you've ever tasted. That, the pizza and the chance to spend a couple of hours in this pleasant atmosphere are certainly enough to justify Zucchero's existence.

Zucchero, 8338 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (213) 852-4868. Open for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner nightly. Full bar. Valet parking. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$65.

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