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From Venice or Naples, It's Not That Far to Long Beach's Ragazzi

June 17, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

"Come to Long Beach and we will take you to Italy" is Ragazzi's slogan. The claim is not idle. This charming oceanfront trattoria is tucked into a corner of a building housing an Olympic-sized swimming pool and feels exactly like Italy. Except, that is, if you happen to catch sight of in-line skaters on nearby Belmont Pier from your patio perch.

The restaurant belongs to Mike O'Toole and his wife, Sandra, a Sri Lankan-American who doubles as a lawyer. O'Toole is a Long Beach native--one of those blond beach-god types--but that image belies one of his abiding passions, Italy.

In 1982, O'Toole got the eccentric idea to race gondolas in Venice (the original Venice in Italy, that is).

Soon after, he started a business called the Gondola Getaway, offering romantic one-hour gondola cruises, with gondolier and all, around the waterways of Naples (not the original Italian Naples, but the island on the east side of Long Beach). The business was an instant success and recently spawned the Gondola Company of Newport, operated by a group that includes one of O'Toole's Long Beach partners (though not O'Toole himself).

And then in 1990, O'Toole opened Ragazzi. As a result, for a price, you can combine a romantic Italian dinner with a late-night gondola cruise. It's a nearly irresistible dining hook, and of course it makes a killer first date.

The O'Tooles' passion for Italy is really what makes this restaurant run. Mike O'Toole goes by the name of Michaelangelo when he's schmoozing up the crowd with champagne and sangria, and the crowd loves it. They obviously love what he cooks, too. On weekends, Ragazzi can be the toughest table in the city, with waiting times running well over 1 1/2 hours.

I'm not sure I understand the wild enthusiasm. O'Toole's cooking can be rather quirky and personal, though most of his dishes taste good. He's had cooking experience in Italy and makes regular trips there to taste food and wine, so no one can deny the man is serious.

But don't expect much subtlety in what comes out of this kitchen. It's dishes from all over Italy doused with loud ingredients such as garlic, herbs, olive oil and tomato sauce. As Michaelangelo himself will be the first to tell you, he cooks what he likes to eat.

Of course, because Ragazzi is a beautiful restaurant in a beautiful setting, it's a little hard to judge the food. You're likely to be distracted by what the O'Tooles describe (accurately) as a combination of the classic look of a Florentine palazzo and the coastal appeal of Venice.

The restaurant's enclosed dining area has old stone walls, a multitude of overhead trellises, a stone floor. The semi-exposed patio, directly over the ocean, has wide sweeping, panoramic windows and wonderfully fresh ocean air. The lighting is dim but dramatic, underscoring the ocean view just beyond the building's perimeter. Tables are covered with butcher paper and adorned with flickering candles.

Thanks to an inspired idea the restaurant calls its trattoria menu, putting together a light supper is easy. The trattoria menu is a truncated version of the regular menu and consists of smaller portions of selected primi and secondi. Ragazzi's portions are exceedingly generous, whether pasta or meat, but the regular menu can be pricey. That's the beauty of the trattoria menu, on which dishes range from $5.50 to $8.50. You can eat what you want, but you don't have to pay for more than you want.

Dinners from the regular menu come with pasta and bean soup or a workmanlike house salad. The soup is one of the heartiest anywhere, a thick bean potage that is heavy with the flavor of dried oregano. But I'd disdain the house salad in favor of something from the a la carte menu such as insalata d'estate , which is perfect when split for two. It's a substantial summer salad made with romaine, bell peppers, tomatoes, sweet onion, bay shrimp, avocado and Gorgonzola cheese with a delicious vinegar dressing. Think of it as a Cobb salad with a European accent.

The kitchen also turns out crisp, thin-crust pizzas in deft style. Michaelangelo speciale is my fave, a well-orchestrated chorus of tomato, basil, prosciutto and light cheese, with garlic as the featured soloist. If you haven't eaten for days, try one of the Neapolitan-style pizzas, where sauteed ingredients such as tomatoes, mushroom and sausage are baked between two crusts.

There are more than two dozen pastas to choose from (and in fact, they'll make any pasta dish you like if they have the ingredients). O'Toole makes a mean puttanesca (Neapolitan food again) using penne in a spicy red sauce flavored with sauteed onion, olives, capers and mushrooms. Purists can call for anchovy, and anybody can request a different pasta instead of the tube-shaped penne.

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