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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Plain Fare Means More at Mariann's : Portions are large, prices modest and dining dependable--if you know what to order at the new Italian Villa.


Mariann's Italian Villa opened recently on Main Street, Ventura, to much anticipation. Mariann's enjoys a loyal following in two other outlets, in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, and it was reasonable to expect a cloning of the chain's trusty formula: large portions of good Italian food at modest prices.

But the results are mixed in this newest venture.

Surely, the crowds have come. On midweek nights, diners sometimes fill three of the restaurant's four dining rooms, one so cozy as to have a fireplace but yet another whose bare-bulb overhead lights provide all the ambience of dining in a cavernous garage.

You will feel welcomed. The staff is warm and solicitous, owing, no doubt, to the influence of Mariann Anderson herself, whose presence is felt and whose husband, Ralph, is chefly architect of the menu. (Indeed, it is impossible to dine here without learning, either through Frank Sinatra's picture on the wall or in promotional literature at the door, that Ralph Anderson has cooked for some very famous people, claims that are my favorite among dubious culinary accolades.)

The food reveals all, of course, and at Mariann's it follows a clear divide between the genuinely satisfying and the simply disastrous. The more rustic and often-ordered selections are most successful; the fancier, more continental preparations fail.

Salads illustrate the point. Every dinner comes with a generous, perfectly fresh, mixed greens-with-grated-carrot house salad with a refreshingly tart Italian dressing.

But spend the extra $4.25 for a Caesar salad, and witness a bizarre display: A waiter arrives to prepare it table side. Instead of rubbing garlic into the sides of the bowl before tossing and instead of mixing an authentic dressing--why else all the show?--he simply reaches for a gravy boat loaded with viscous already prepared dressing. He dumps it, rolls the romaine around in it, fills a plate, and places it before you. He's gone before you can ask for fresh-ground pepper. He's gone the moment you realize that such a display of empty ostentation in Frank Sinatra's hometown of Hoboken, N.J., would incite a dining room riot.

The divide is repeated in appetizers. If it's a cold night, pass on the fine house salad and opt instead for the soup that accompanies every entree: minestrone. It is thick, fresh, filled with al dente vegetables and even a few rotelle . It is delicious. But get fancy and order the Sicilian antipasto ($10.95) and face an uninspired plate heaped with cubed and sliced provolone (domestic), bland sliced pepperoni (domestic) and salami (domestic), pickled hot peppers topped with crushed garlic from a jar, green onions, and spiced ham. Antipasto was never intended to be plain old American deli. It's a drag.

Some entrees are, in fact, standouts. Chicken breast picatta ($9.95), while an inauthentic picatta , is a pleasingly rustic version in which perfectly grilled meat is heaped with sauteed fresh mushrooms, capers, lemon, and butter.

And Jerry Torri's homemade sausage ($11.95) is a home-run hit, even by Hoboken standards: homemade sausages, dense in the freshly seasoned meats and miraculously grease-free, are pan-seared and served with bell peppers and onions and a side of mostaccioli .

Things get riskier with seafood. Spicy shrimp marinara ($14.95), in which the butterflied crustaceans surround firm fettucini noodles for one of the more dazzling presentations around, simply lacked flavor and certainly heat. And orange roughy ($10.95) arrived encased in a sweater of batter, a failed attempt at giving the delicate white fish a bistro-stylish Francese treatment. The fish within, however masked, was fresh and succulent; the steamed carrots and broccoli surrounding it perfectly done.

As if to re-establish the kitchen's capacity to fail completely, a New York steak ($14.95) was beautiful in appearance, dead-on medium rare (as ordered) but dreadfully mealy in texture and wanting for any flavor whatsoever. The hungry steak lover who ordered it proclaimed disaster, took it home to the pets. Similarly, veal Marsala ($14.95), a Continental classic if there ever was one, bore gray-brown meat that was tough and metallic in flavor--drawbacks that found no cover or redemption from an oily, too-sweet wine sauce.

Desserts are humdrum. Cheesecake, instead of being ricotta-light or New York-dense, tasted like a bar of Philadelphia cream cheese. Cannolis were advertised in all four visits but never available. Ice creams and coffee were, however, just fine.

Mariann's wine list is extremely low-priced and selected well for the food. An even better buy, however, is the house Chianti, a light but trustworthy bottling, at $1.95 a glass and perfect, say, with the homemade sausages.

Go hungry, stick to the basics, and you'll do fine. Stray in a flicker of ambition, and you're on your own.


* WHAT: Mariann's Italian Villa

* WHEN: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday till 10 p.m.; Saturday from 3:30 to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 3:30 to 9 p.m.

* WHERE: 2437 E. Main St., Ventura

* COST: Dinner for two, food only, from $18 to $40.

* FYI: V, MC, AMEX accepted.

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