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RESTAURANT REVIEW : The Rebirth of Il Mito : The popular Italian spot makes its post-quake debut--and is as inventive and delicious as before.

May 27, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

STUDIO CITY — After a brief closure caused by the earthquake, one of the San Fernando Valley's smartest Italian restaurants announced that it had been reborn. I can't say I see much difference between the old Il Mito and its reincarnation, beyond a few menu additions such as duck with blueberry sauce and an equally colorful beet risotto, but I am grateful that these people have had sense enough to maintain, for the most part, the status quo.

Since Day One, Il Mito has been as finished and inventive as any Italian restaurant on this side of the hill. Chef-owner Michael Fekr is a protege of Antonio Tommasi, the one-man Italian restaurant conglomerate associated with Locanda Veneta, Ca' Brea and Il Moro, as well as the new Ca' Del Sole in North Hollywood. He has clearly been a good student, and by now Fekr has had four years to hone his cooking style and train a staff, the best two reasons this place runs so smoothly.

His tasteful, well-balanced menu attracts a fiercely loyal clientele, mostly big-shot producers, screenwriters and ambitious assistants from the nearby studio complexes. Come any weekday and you are likely to find yourself sandwiched in among them, for Il Mito is relentlessly popular at lunch. One Tuesday, two competitively dressed women to my immediate right were discussing a script about racism in college basketball. On a Thursday, I got to hear the actor John Ritter, maybe three feet behind me, jawing about his newest projects.

It is axiomatic, in this town, that one has to have one's act together to hold on to industry clientele. And snappy decor doesn't hurt. Il Mito's two dining rooms are spare and elegant; one is an open, well-lighted bar decorated with gaudy Art Nouveau paintings, the other a more sequestered room adjacent to the restaurant's partially open kitchen. Gorgeous, translucent ochre lanterns are suspended above the tables in this second room, and they give off an almost mystical glow in the evening. In contrast, eating in the bar, especially during lunch, feels casual and overtly hip, making it the perfect place to consummate one of those legendary deals.

Fekr has a wonderful eye for color; he uses olive oil, garlic, basil, radicchio and sun-dried tomatoes to achieve artistic effect in many dishes. The complimentary tomato and garlic appetizer, a dipping sauce for the excellent house bread, comes topped with a sprinkle of fresh green herbs and a float of clean-tasting olive oil, a mini- oeuvre in an earthenware saucer. Then there's bruschetta al pomodoro e melanzane , grilled bread with diced eggplant, Roma tomatoes, basil and Parmesan cheese. You get four delicious mounds that look like multicolored New Age sculptures.

*

Another very popular dish at lunch is zuppa della riccessa , a fine Tuscan-style lentil soup with a smoky aftertaste. I do not understand Fekr's minestrone di verdure , though--a brownish cabbage soup that tastes like a refugee dish from an Eastern European restaurant. The best of the salads is probably insalata due colori , a clever Caesar of colorful radicchio and romaine tossed with a dressing pungent with anchovies.

Fekr makes excellent stuffed pastas. Tortelloni are plump little purses stuffed with ricotta, in a rich mushroom sauce. The ravioli ripieni is the best dish in the restaurant: wonderfully light dough, a subtly flavored minced shrimp filling and a rich saffron cream sauce on top.

If you are in a radical mood, try risotto con capesante (with scallops), the twist being that pureed beets tint this risotto a pale rose red. But pass on penne al terremoto (Italian for earthquake--ironically, it was on Fekr's menu before January's semi-Big One). The short tube pasta comes in a spicy, tomato-based sauce with crushed olives and garlic that suffers, as it has from the beginning--from the bitterness of burnt garlic.

The main dishes ( secondi ) have more moxie than the roast meats found in 90% of our Italian restaurants. Unfortunately, they don't all work. Pollo libertino is boneless free-range chicken crisped on the grill in a whole-seed mustard sauce, and it is simply too salty. Lombata di vitello con aglio e rosmarino is better, a thick veal chop blanketed in a brown garlic and rosemary sauce.

I liked anatra al mirtillo , although no one else at my table did. It's one of Fekr's more daring items: oven-roasted Muscovy duck, cooked to order, with a blueberry sauce, of all things, that gives the natural essences of the meat a nice added dimension. And costolette d'agnello alle arachidi (rack of lamb, four double chops) comes topped with a peanut sauce that may have been inspired by Talesai, the Thai restaurant across the street.

Peanuts in an Italian dish, hmmmm. No, I just don't think it works. Maybe we need to think back to that status quo concept, just a bit.

WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Il Mito, 11801 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Suggested Dishes: Insalata due colori , $6.50; tortelloni di magro , $9.75; ravioli ripieni con gamberetti , $10.95; anatra al mirtillo , $18.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, dinner 6 to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Price: Lunch for two, $23 to $52. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (818) 762-1818.

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