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Best of Both Worlds : El Obelisco pairs Italian pastas with the flavorful grilled meats and sauces of Buenos Aires--at budget prices.

November 05, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

WOODLAND HILLS — Add the name El Obelisco to your short list of sensational little ethnic eateries.

This tiny storefront pasta parlor is named for a giant obelisk in downtown Buenos Aires--there's a color photo behind the cash register to prove it--but chef Federico Gramayo's cooking just as easily conjures images of Torino or Milan. In addition to wonderful Argentine dishes such as empanadas and matambre , Gramayo prepares terrific, feather-light Italian pastas. And for good measure, he makes sumptuous sandwiches and fine grilled meats.

It's a real discovery. But you might not think so at first glance. The furniture consists of bridge-type tables covered in red-and-white checked plastic and the kind of white plastic stack chairs sold at Home Club.

You can sit down at one of those tables and give your order to the waiter--if you're patient. Most people, though, hurry things along by standing in line at the counter and placing their own orders.

Only the colorful pasta case, crowded with freshly made agnolotti , pansotti , linguine in rainbow colors and rows upon rows of bite-sized ravioli, suggests the major treats that are to come out of this kitchen. Those pastas are gorgeous: They literally glisten with freshness, pale from a dusting of white flour, laid out like museum pieces on metal trays in the counter case. Look past the counter and you might actually catch sight of Gramayo or his daughter in the kitchen rolling out sheets of pasta dough.

The Italian/Argentine connection is nothing new. More than half the people of Argentina are Italian by ancestry, and virtually all of our Argentine restaurant's--Gardel's, Glendale's El Morfi and Costa Mesa's aptly named Pasta Connection, to name three--have menus reflecting the dual heritage.

One strictly Argentine component is chimichurri , the piquant, vinegary national sauce, which at El Obelisco is made from garlic, chopped parsley and other green herbs; you'll find a little bowl of it on your table. Argentines put chimichurri on everything--sandwiches, even grilled meats. I must admit the stuff grows on you.

The Argentine side of the menu leans toward meats, natch. Hard-core beefeaters will go for the Obelisco steak, a tender top sirloin served with grilled vegetables. At $6.49, it might be the Valley's best steak buy.

Milanesa refers to a pounded, breaded cutlet with a crisp parsley-and-garlic crust. El Obelisco makes versions with chicken, turkey and beef. I bowed to tradition and tried the beef cutlet, which overflows a crusty roll piled with mayo, sliced onion, lettuce and tomato. You add chimichurri to taste.

Matambre --literally "kill-hunger," a kind of meat roll stuffed with pimiento and hard-cooked egg--is usually made with beef in cattle-rich Argentina, but (shocking!) El Obelisco serves a great-tasting chicken matambre. It comes with sides of a creamy potato salad, chock full of carrots and peas. Empanadas , the flaky little Argentine turnovers with fillings scented with marinated onion, may be ordered with chicken or cheese in place of beef.

Across the page, the menu is headed by the words "Viva Italia"--one long column of pastas and saucy main dishes. There are 15 pastas in all, available in your choice of five sauces, totaling 75 possible combinations. Simple pastas are $3.49, filled pastas around $1 higher.

I had El Obelisco's enormous agnolotti with a simple butter sauce, the way these half-moon shaped pasta pillows are served in Italy's Piedmont region. There, agnolotti are usually stuffed with a rabbit, veal and pork mixture, but because nearly all of Obelisco's pastas are vegetarian, this one has a surprise in store. Gramayo fills them with fresh ricotta, parsley, walnuts and nutmeg, in what has to be the most filling pasta anywhere. If you want something lighter, order spaghetti with olive oil and garlic.

But don't expect much of a respite if you order one of the Italian meat dishes. El Obelisco's osso buco is an enormous, beautifully braised veal shank on a marrow-filled bone, and I'll match it against any I've tasted. It comes with a huge side of gnocchi and, at $6.99, they are almost giving it away.

There's only one dessert, a delicate flan served with a dollop of the rich caramel cream known in Spanish as dulce de leche. Thank you, El Obelisco, for not making me taste another tirami su , and thank you for a price/quality ratio that can only be described as A-1.

Where and When Location: El Obelisco, 22140 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. Suggested Dishes: chicken matambre , $3.25; beef Milanesa, $3.95; linguine, $3.49; agnolotti , $4.99; osso buco , $6.99. Hours: Lunch and dinner 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Price: Lunch for two, $8-$15. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only. Call: (818) 712-0105.

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