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Why Mona Lisa Is Smiling : Renaissance Begins With Imported Chefs and Fine Northern Italian Fare

September 09, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Finding a good ethnic restaurant makes a food writer's day. A great one can brighten up an entire season.

Da Vinci, a new addition to Santa Ana's unassuming motel, the Bluebird Inn, is a wonderful small restaurant with an amalgam of northern Italian cooking, that of the provinces Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria.

The property, including the motel, belongs to a courtly couple named Layla and Mike Boyajian. Da Vinci represents the Boyajians' third try at a successful restaurant on the premises. The last go was called Puccini, an Italian restaurant that did a brisk lunch business but never attracted much of an evening crowd. (Before that, the room was known as the Warm Table, run by longtime O.C. restaurant pro Bernie Gordon.)

Layla Boyajian, though, is truly passionate about good cooking, so she recently imported two young Italian chefs, Roberto Borsani from Bergamo and Alberto Gianti from Milan. This time, her passion should pay dividends.

This is cooking you would expect to find in the provinces of Italy, nothing at all like the more commonplace California-style food found in a great many of our so-called northern Italian restaurants. I hope Da Vinci gets the appreciation it deserves.

The chefs' two lasagna dishes, for instance, have more layers than a Dobos torta, stacks of freshly made noodle sheets stuffed with tempting meat or vegetable fillings. The crackly focaccia that begins every meal here has been lovingly brushed with garlic and olive oil, flavors that mask the sweetness of lightly caramelized onions embedded in the dough. Even desserts are a breed apart: a tiramisu made with homemade ladyfingers, an apple tart with virtually no sugar whatsoever in the crust.

The Boyajians haven't done a bad job with this room, either. They ripped up the floor, replacing it with beautiful pink and gray marble they found in Greece, and had the walls hand-painted a relaxing off-white. There are elegant oil paintings, fresh roses from the Boyajians' garden, softly draped windows. (Although the print of the Mona Lisa does overstate the case a little.)

The only flaw, really, relates to the smallness of the room--when the restaurant is crowded, it can get pretty noisy in here.

Flowers are not the only thing Layla Boyajian brings in from her garden. There are things like her fennel, cucumber and thyme in the remarkable insalata mista verde , a salad the chefs fashion from 17 different components.

It's also possible to enjoy more exotic salads during the lunch service. One, an Italian take on the French salade Nicoise , is sliced, cooked potato, tomato, hard-boiled egg, sweet basil and a light mayonnaise dressing. Another, apple salad with red radish, Grana cheese, celery and a chickory-flavored oil, tastes like a fantasy Waldorf salad.

One could make an entire meal out of the house focaccia and a thick bowl of the pasta e fagioli alla Toscana. The beans are pureed in this version and the slightest hint of nutmeg may put off a purist; it is the one dish I do not care for at Da Vinci. But any reservations you may have about these chefs will surely vanish at the taste of pastas such as lasagnette all'Emiliana , lasagne di verdure or tortellini al burro e maggiorana .

Some may find the lasagnette bland, but this is a dish I'd like to eat over and over again. It's the menu's one homage to the province of Emilia-Romagna, whose capital, Bologna, is synonymous with a delicate meat ragu made from finely minced veal. The filling here is also a classic sauce Bolognese, surrounded by eight or nine layers of noodles made with an abundance of whole egg in the dough. Perhaps the top layer, finished with Bechamel sauce, could be considered another overstatement. It works for me.

The Bechamel sauce shows up again between the layers in the vegetable lasagna, along with minced carrot, zucchini and onion. In its own way, this lasagna is even richer than the one relying on meat.

Fresh tortellini, which I defy anyone to find in another local restaurant, are an even bigger treat. They are mini doughnuts of pasta, stuffed with meat and cheese. You eat them with a Piedmont-style sage butter sauce, and the combination is sheer magic.

I found more magic on Da Vinci's dinner menu, from a great risotto with red Treviso celery to a greaseless, tender Milanese veal cutlet.

You might start dinner with Da Vinci's bresaola, great air-dried beef served with a flurry of arugula and a soft, creamy round of goat cheese. Composta di verdure bollite --nothing more than simple rounds of parboiled carrot, broccoli and zucchini--is a good dish for these chefs, because it showcases their ability to make the ordinary into something special. The topping of melted Grana cheese and finely chopped pancetta transforms the vegetables into a rare treat.

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