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THE PREGO PATTERN : Nearly 10 Years Old, This Beverly Hills Ristorante Is Still la Epitome di Una Trattoria

August 08, 1993|Charles Perry

About 10 years ago, two Italian restaurants opened in Beverly Hills almost simultaneously. One was a two-story, five-ring circus of a place owned by producer Dino De Laurentiis, selling any sort of Italian food, from raw produce to full dinners. I remember standing in line behind actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who was waiting to get in like the rest of us.

And then there was Prego Ristorante. The word prego means not only "please" but "excuse me," "how can I help?" and "don't mention it." This agreeable attitude probably has a lot to do with the fact that Prego is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary in December while DDL Food Show died an unlamented death in short order.

Prego set the pattern for a lot of Westside Italian restaurants: open kitchen with wood pizza oven, fresh bread sticks, bresaola, a variety of pastas with fresh, savory sauces, and simple Tuscan-style, wood-grilled meats.

It's a classic menu. Old-timers will still find carpaccio G. Cipriani, corkscrew pasta with luganega sausage and penne with eggplant and smoked mozzarella--even gamberitti marinati , that appetizer of shrimp with feta and lime juice that seemed daring in 1983 but feels a little tired today. Ravioli di magro now has a light sauce of chopped tomatoes, which is perfectly OK, but on request they'll make these spinach and ricotta ravioli the old way, with browned butter and fried fresh sage leaves. The butter sauce is still an exquisite combination of richness and delicacy.

Though the original menu remains sacrosanct, chef Andrea Rogantini inserts some alternative dishes in a colazione menu available at lunch. Some of them merely extend the rest of the menu's style unobtrusively, like a salad of radicchio, asparagus and slabs of excellent Parmesan or some chewy orecchiette pasta with broccoli, garlic and olive oil.

Other colazione dishes are a lot more exciting. The fave salad is made with lima beans rather than real favas, but they're al dente and only slightly floury and go well with escarole, cubes of aged ricotta--imagine ricotta with more flavor and the texture of feta--and little bits of browned pancetta . And the lasagna al salmone is spectacular: silky pasta baked with chunks of salmon and an unctuous, aromatic pesto sauce.

That same pesto shows up on the regular menu's involtini di melanzane : four grilled slices of eggplant rolled around goat cheese and a puree of sun-dried tomato, arranged in a star pattern with grilled peppers between them, all joined at the hip with dark green pesto.

The rest of the appetizers are solid stuff: boiled vegetables marinated in balsamic vinegar, a flat pizza bread oozing Fontina and mozzarella cheese, sweet baby clams and mussels in tomatoey broth, a great insalata di spinaci with onion slices, bits of pancetta, lots of mushrooms and a whole-grain mustard vinaigrette. In carciofo all'arrabbiata , the artichoke is al dente , meaning the outer leaves don't offer much to eat. But you don't go away hungry for artichoke because the whole thing is stuffed with a spicy hash of artichoke and topped with a vinaigrette of balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, mustard and olive oil.

Pane aglio e rosmarino , though, brings up what's always been lacking at Prego: really good bread. The pizza oven turns out good thin-crust pizzas with toppings like mozzarella, grilled chicken and pine nuts (pizza boscaiola ), prosciutto and smoked mozzarella (pizza rustica ), even a light vegetariana without cheese. It produces famously crunchy fresh bread sticks. But the bread basket doesn't contain much of interest, and the rosemary-garlic bread has a soft crust and strange, almost muffiny texture.

Pastas star here, as they always have. Agnolotti d'aragosta in lemon-lobster sauce. Fettuccine ai funghi with seasonal mushrooms and Parmesan. Lasagnette Bolognese --not a baked pasta but wide green noodles with a light, beef-based tomato sauce. On special you might encounter bocconcini di polenta , chunks of polenta of unearthly lightness in lamb sauce.

Prego's Tuscan style of cooking doesn't waste much imagination on the meat. The roasted potato chunks on the side are usually more striking than the meat. Apart from the strong garlic-rosemary sauce on roast chicken, meats are basically unadorned; petti di pollo alla diavolo supposedly has mustard and red pepper in its cream sauce, but not so much that the average Angeleno, hardened by years of eating in Mexican and Thai restaurants, would think it diabolically hot. This austere approach pays dividends in the fish of the day, where the excellence of the fish doesn't have to compete with anything.

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