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Want the Unusual? Say Cheese

September 30, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition

Orange's Mascarpone, named for the creamy Italian cheese, features a menu overflowing with pasta, polenta and veal--just as you'd expect. But a pan-Mediterranean spirit bubbles under the surface.

Owner Pepe Santamarina is from Vigo, Spain, and he radiates a sunny enthusiasm as he works his dining room. Some may remember Santamarina from Newport Beach's Stuft Noodle. There, he catered to a staid old-money crowd and relied on old-style Italo-American dishes to make his customers happy.

Here, in the more relaxing Mascarpone, however, Santamarina is clearly doing his own thing. Never mind that he's more of an Iberian, not quite from the Mediterranean himself. (Vigo is a blustery town in Spain's Galicia, in the northwest, near Portugal, where the diet is heartier and more rugged than the food farther south.) His food is an unusual mix of Italian, Spanish and Greek refinements.

There is a risotto here, for instance, that uses saffron, garlic and red pepper to maximum effect, while masquerading as an Italian rice casserole. A knock-'em-dead Greek salad made with feta cheese, red onion, calamata olives and a pungent herb vinaigrette pays homage to Santamarina's Greek-American wife, Ronnea. And then there are all these rich, delicious pastas--Gorgonzola ravioli and rigatoni fegatino , among them--that are too sumptuous to be called typically Italian.

You get the idea that this is going to be a good experience the minute you enter.

The two dining rooms are modest but comfortable; it's easy to see that the Santamarinas make the most of limited resources. The restaurant recently reopened after a monthlong cleaning and face lift--there's a new cranberry-colored carpet and new tiles in the kitchen and restrooms.

Ronnea Santamarina draped the industrial drop ceiling with a soft green print fabric, reducing the amount of ambient light but making the dining areas more romantic.

Walls are decorated with clusters of beautiful ceramic plates, knickknacks Santamarina collected on his various travels throughout Iberia. Fresh flowers adorn the tables.

You begin a meal here with a basket of hot homemade bread, brushed with a mixture of tomato puree, garlic, olive oil and oregano. Peperoni aglio arrostiti , despite their Italian name, remind me more of the roasted red peppers the Spanish eat in tapas bars, especially served in this fashion, smothered with softened cloves of garlic and drenched with Spanish olive oil.

If it is cheese you crave, try the fine insalata caprese , sliced vine tomato, meltingly soft pieces of imported bufala mozzarella and a sprinkling of fresh sweet basil. My favorite starter here is carpaccio Fiorentino , razor-thin slices of filet mignon topped with shaved Parmesan cheese, olive oil, basil and lemon.

The pastas tend to be heavy--some of them are actually made with mascarpone cheese--and are better as main courses. Grab the homemade gnocchi when it is available, and ask for Mascarpone's unusual pesto, a stick-to-the-ribs version with walnuts instead of traditional pine nuts. (Two of Santamarina's customers are allergic to pine nuts, so he changed the recipe.)

The homemade ravioli, chewy pasta pillows stuffed with a veal-and-spinach mixture, are terrific, though I'd actually like them with a light butter sauce, rather than the creamy Gorgonzola sauce normally poured on top. There is hearty lasagna Bolognese, a bubbly, cheesy casserole with an intense, tomato-based meat ragu, perfumed lightly with oregano. Homemade cannelloni and manicotti are both served with a choice of either Bolognese or mascarpone sauce.

Seafood lovers can veer toward a pasta such as linguine pescatore , made with mussels, clams, shrimp and scallops. But there is really a better foil for these creatures: Call 24 hours in advance, and you can reserve the house specialty, paella. Paella is, of course, Spanish Mediterranean, and we won't quibble about the fact that Santamarina makes his with Italian arborio rice. This is simply great eating, a huge ceramic crock brimming with shellfish, calamari , pork riblets, chorizo , chicken and saffron-flavored rice. Santamarina even has a perfect (and inexpensive) Spanish white wine to go along with the dish--called Arborino, it has a light, refreshing taste, almost like a dry Riesling.

If you'd like veal, try vitello Fiorentino, medallions of prime veal topped with Fontina cheese and sauteed with spinach.

Filetto al Pepe seems like something you'd look for in Spain: filet mignon in a rich brown sauce with shallots and cognac, finished with heavy cream. Incidentally, ask Santamarina for one of his Spanish Rioja red wines to go along with the filet, or any heavily sauced dish. They are wonderful wines for the price.

For dessert, there are homemade cheesecakes, great creamy creations with thick graham crusts and with things like banana and passion fruit mixed into the filling. If you really want to end like a Spaniard, how about a snifter of Venerable, 40-plus-year-old sherry, the color of walnut stain. We won't remind ourselves that this is supposed to be an Italian restaurant.

Mascarpone is moderate to expensive. Antipasti are $4 to $8. Pastas are $8 to $10. Main dishes are $9.50 to $17.50.

* MASCARPONE

* 1448 E. Katella Ave., Orange

* (714) 633-0101.

* Lunch Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.

* American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

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