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Three Cheers for Two Restaurants, One Chef

July 14, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County

When I heard Tony Bagatta was involved with Brio and Brio Mare, my expectations soared. Anybody lucky enough to have experienced the long-gone Newport Beach restaurant Bagatta can recall some of the highest-quality Italian cooking ever enjoyed in this county.

Bagatta has a knack for attracting talented chefs, and he's found another one in Umberto Rubelli, who serves as executive chef for both restaurants. However, one chef can't be in two places at the same time, so you find a certain unevenness in the cuisine here.

Brio is a lovely garden restaurant in a Monarch Beach mini-mall. If you sit on the patio, the scents of sage and rosemary will be your unofficial companions. The South County dressed-up crowd prefers the sleek, modern dining room, perhaps because it's closer to the guitarist--or because they like to watch the show in the open kitchen.

If you don't mind an occasional glimpse of condos and sports cars beyond the herbs and sunflowers, the patio is a real pleasure spot.

Brio's menu offers few great surprises, but the cooking is serious, and often rich. Fried calamari is served with a grainy, spicy tomato sauce. The terrific Caesar salad shows that this kitchen is not afraid to use an anchovy or three.

The pizzas, of the thin-crusted Italo-modern persuasion, are cooked in an oak-fired brick oven. The savory pizza quattro stagioni has different toppings on each quadrant: mushrooms, prosciutto, artichoke hearts and olives. A pizza pescatore is loaded with shrimp, scallops, calamari and clams. It would be wonderful, but the toppings stiffen up bit in the oven.

Pastas are cooked al dente at both Brio restaurants, without fear or favor. Fettuccine ragu is excellent (the meat sauce is rich and delicious), but it loses a couple of points because the noodles clump up in the bowl. Mezzaluna al salmone is spectacular crescent-shaped ravioli stuffed with a dense, flavorful salmon mixture. It comes with a fine dill-cream sauce. Bagatta has always favored luxury, which translates to heavily sauced entrees and creamy desserts. One evening the special was a veal T-bone with mushroom sauce--a fine, though overcooked, veal chop with a wonderful mushroom reduction. Scampi Provencale are large prawns in a lavish cream sauce infused with saffron and sprinkled with garlic, bread crumbs and herbs.

For dessert, try zucotto , a dome-shaped, cream-filled Italian confection made with sponge cake, almonds, amaretto and chocolate. Here it's the best dessert.

*

Brio Mare, Brio's sister restaurant in downtown Laguna, is all but identical, foodwise. Atmosphere--now that's another matter.

Most recently, this room labored under the weighty name The Place Across the Street From the Hotel Laguna. Owners Bagatta, Enzo Scognamiglio and Nino Chirico have heavily redone the previous "cosmic cafe," though they have left some of architect Robert Michelsen's more eccentric appointments, such as the astrological symbols on the walls and the celestially themed mobiles.

This is a visually stunning room: brick and rustic wood, a gorgeous floor tiled in gray slate. The walls are adorned with modern art and the best tables hang out over the PCH sidewalk. The people-watching is fabulous.

Don't look for pizza, because there isn't any. As compensation, the menu offers a couple of pastas you cannot get at Brio. Spaghetti integrale relies on whole-wheat spaghetti and a mushroom, sage, garlic and chopped tomato topping. Rigatoni rustica is a thicker noodle sauteed with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and sweet Italian sausage.

The antipasti can be hit-or-miss. The bruschetta --toasted bread, chopped tomato, basil, garlic and roasted bell pepper--makes a satisfying snack. Prosciutto and melon suffer from dry ham and unripe melon.

Main courses are meaty and rich. There is galetto , a Cornish hen flattened, grilled and brushed with butter and rosemary. Medaglioni di maiale is medallions of pork broiled and served with an overpowering sauce based on mustard seed. Lighter appetites can take refuge in trota salmonata --baby salmon (or, if you prefer, salmon trout) sauteed with lemon and white wine, on a bed of baby greens--or spiedino di pesce spada , broiled swordfish served over brown rice. Ask for your swordfish moist in the center.

The tiramisu is identical to the one at Brio, lots of ladyfingers sandwiching a stiff mascarpone cream. Torta di formaggio and torta di cioccolato e noci are unique to Brio Mare and worth ordering. The former is a light, tart cheesecake with a fresh cream glaze. The latter is a rich suspension of fudgy cake and chopped nuts.

Brio and Brio Mare are high-end moderate. Antipasti are $4.95 to $6.95. Pizzas are $7.50 to $9.25. Pastas are $7.95 to $11.95. Entrees are $10.95 to $15.95.

* BRIO

* 24050 Camino del Avion, Monarch Beach.

* (714) 443-1476.

* Lunch 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

* All major cards accepted.

* BRIO MARE

* 440 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach.

* (714) 497-2625.

* Breakfast 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; lunch 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

* All major cards accepted.

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