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Pasta With Pizazz : Encino's Trilussa, with its elegant but festive ambience, is drawing crowds: 900 folks in a day can't be wrong.

March 11, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

ENCINO — If you extrude it, they will come. Remember those fateful words. They're a restaurant owner's mantra on this side of the hill.

The San Fernando Valley's pasta mania probably accounts for the veritable tidal wave of diners flocking to Trilussa, a swank new trattoria. It's drawing crowds of up to 900 on busy days, an amazing figure when you consider the dozens of Italian restaurants that compete with it up and down the boulevard.

But you can't ignore the fact that, food aside, this is simply a gorgeous place to eat. Actually, all the Trilussa restaurants (Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Glendale and Rome, Italy) are easy on the eyes: big, airy places with an earthy and festive appeal. This spacious place may be the most attractive restaurant in Encino.

The ceiling is blond wood punctuated by two skylights. The open kitchen is a mass of gleaming white tile. On a gorgeous spring day, it's a real pleasure just to sit at a table by the open side doors, getting a hit of sky from within and without (the restaurant is adjacent to a small park). In the evenings, of course, the thrill isn't the light. It's the madhouse buzz of a ferociously popular restaurant.

Much of the swank in this dining area comes from the square-jawed terra cotta floor and tables smartly set with elegant two-toned tablecloths. Waitresses sport little black and yellow bow ties that look like Monarch butterflies; fitting attire, as they flit around almost nonstop in the overflow crowd.

I can do without the restaurant's corny Italian paintings and wall-mounted groceries, but the tomato cans and hanging salumeria inside the kitchen strike up the appetite on cue. And that's good, because you need an appetite to do this menu justice.

To start with, everyone gets a basket of the chewy, flattish Italian country bread known as ciabatta . For reasons I've been unable to deduce, selected lucky tables also get wonderful pizza dough focaccia , hot out of the oven, lightly brushed with olive oil. (I finally got some on my third visit.) This bread foreshadows the restaurant's fine pizzas and its creative bruschette , which are not to be missed.

I've always thought of bruschette as grilled country bread rubbed with olive oil and garlic, with the possible addition of chopped tomatoes and basil, even a little cheese. Trilussa serves all those variants and also throws tuna and arugula into the mix.

There are about two dozen pizzas, and for me, they're as good as any served in the Valley. I have a bone to pick with one of them, though, the delicious prosciutto e funghi pizza. It's a crisp matzo-like crust topped with gooey whole-milk mozzarella and a tomato and mushroom sauce with a judicious pinch of sugar in it. Here's my gripe: They slice the pizza into quarters, but then drape two big strips of sliced prosciutto across the top, making it awkward to divide.

Wait a bit before choosing from the mouth-watering list of antipasti, because the waitress is going to give you a complimentary starter no matter what you order. One night the free dish turned out to be a fine antipasto spread in itself--salami, terrific marinated eggplant and zucchini, bufala mozzarella and a variety of Italian pickles. Another night, we got a plate of mushy polenta, topped with a grainy marinara sauce and a half rack of veal ribs. That's what I call generous.

Now for the big draw here, those complex carbos. At Trilussa, pasta essentially comes in three forms: angel hair, spaghetti and penne . All three are served classically al dente . Now choose your sauce. Penne al salmone , for instance, comes with wonderfully smoky bits of chopped salmon.

If you count tortelloni as pasta (and I do), consider these fine little fat green doughnut shapes that the chefs stuff with things like ricotta and spinach. But as for that other quasi-pasta, gnocchi, I must report that one friend compared them to chewing gum. In truth, Trilussa's gnocchi are passable, but they'd never pass the grandmother test.

Trilussa's prices would, though. There isn't a single pasta costing more than $8.95, and it's no problem to eat here for less than $20 a person.

Maybe that mantra needs alterations. If you extrude it, dress it up, don't overcook it and make the price competitive, then--Giovanna, bar the door! They will come in droves.

Where and When What: Trilussa. Location: 16925 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Suggested Dishes: bruschette tonno e rugola , $3.95; pizzas, $5.95 to $8.95; penne arrabbiata , $6.75; penne salmone , $8.25; tortelloni di ricotta e spinaci , $8.25. Hours: Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily. Price: Dinner for two, $28 to $42. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards. Call: (818) 905-6595.

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