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RESTAURANT REVIEW : This Chef Has Personality and Originality : Mollie Ahlstrand serves up delicious Italian dishes straight from the heart at Trattoria Mollie in Santa Barbara.

September 23, 1993|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What makes a celebrity chef? The food, certainly--food that makes people talk to their friends, brag about it, urge them to go. But personality is a necessary ingredient too, with strong doses of charisma, self-promotion and originality.

In Santa Barbara, Mollie Ahlstrand's Trattoria Mollie serves food extraordinary enough to establish any chef's reputation. It's impossible to go to Trattoria Mollie without experiencing the heady force of her presence.

Born in Ethiopia and trained as a chef at some of the finest restaurants in and around Rome, her credentials are impeccable. Periodically she sails out from the kitchen to make a tour of the tables. Swathed from head to toe in white--like an angel of mercy--she ministers to each table, checking their food, their appetites, their moods, dispensing her charm with fine exuberance. Food may be the foundation here, but she encourages a conviviality that elevates the experience of eating to a celebration. Then back into the kitchen she goes, where you may hear her shouting volubly to her staff.

As in the best Roman restaurants, a visual feast of appetizers greets the eye as you enter the room. You walk past a table filled with enticing platters of vegetables, like cold grilled eggplant and zucchini, or braised green beans or spinach. But before you can sample any of these, there's the bread--fresh, hot, very light and chewy, served with little bowls of virgin olive oil, so dense the color borders on chartreuse.

I've had two marvelous soups here. A thick garbanzo bean--made with a fresh tomato base and filled with pasta shells as well as beans--seemed to have captured the flavor and insouciance of Italy.

An even more surprising, wonderful spinach soup had been kissed with the flavor of shallots. A smooth green puree, lightened with a touch of cream, it had been decorated with a design of fresh chopped tomatoes and grated cheese. Adding taste and texture were salty chunks of prosciutto and tiny little peas.

The green salads were fine, but the insalata di mare ($6.95), with shrimp, squid and scallops added to curly greens and julienned celery and fennel, was particularly good. A classic Italian appetizer, prosciutto and melon, was lovely; prosciutto as thin as tissue paper enveloped sections of cantaloupe.

Another appetizer, eggplant parmesan, was as light as whipped cream and very respectful of the fresh tomatoes. Fresh tomatoes are the basis for the terrific tomato sauce here, but how she keeps the taste so fresh is a mystery.

Spaghetti alla trattoria ($7.95) utilizes this plain sauce--along with a mixture of grated cheeses and fresh-snipped basil--to turn simplicity into sophistication.

This same wonderful sauce also came with the duck ravioli--a homey comforting dish that shows up frequently as a special because people keep asking for it. And the sauce was used in a superb salmon ravioli, which had as much salmon as it did pasta.

If you can tear yourself away from the tomato sauce, try the tagliatelle alla Florentina, with chunks of prosciutto, mushrooms, peas and the wonderful nutty flavor of fontina cheese. The pasta here had been made by hand in the kitchen.

Spaghetti a la carbonara Romana ($9.95) was an impeccably authentic dish. Made from the finest simple ingredients: eggs, thick Italian bacon, pecorino Romano and Parmesan cheeses and black pepper, it was hearty, smoky and spicy.

Risotto with porcini mushrooms consisted of very nutty rice with subtle gradations in texture, infused with the marvelous flavor of pungent woodsy mushrooms and Gruyere cheese.

Secondi piatti (second course) meat and fish dishes proved to be as pleasing as those that preceded them. Sea bass was a generous chunk of moist, almost buttery fish on a bed of delicate polenta with bits of peeled, fresh tomatoes.

Veal cutlet was a revelation of what this meat can be, instead of the usual cardboard cutouts. It came in a sauce of mushrooms, tomato and parsley, and everyone at the table vied for one more bite and then another.

Desserts were modest, simple and satisfying. Coffee-flavored tiramisu resembled a chocolate mousse in texture and appearance. Creme brulee had the lightest, creamiest custard texture and a crisp, sugary topping that tasted like butterscotch.

Homemade gelato came in a smooth chocolate or a delicate vanilla flavor that made one think of zabaglione. One night we had a cantaloupe sorbet that captured the wonderful essence of the fruit and graced it with an alluring icy texture. Mollie appeared before we ordered it and assured us: "The dessert I make from my heart."

I believe that went for the whole meal.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Trattoria Mollie, 2700 De La Vina St., Santa Barbara, 682-2465, Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday-Sunday, 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Wine and beer. Visa and MasterCard. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$60.

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