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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Emilio's Proves the Naysayers Wrong : Tasty and original dishes make this Italian cuisine some of the best in town.

July 28, 1994|DAVID GOLDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Several years ago, when Emilio's Trattoria first opened on Cabrillo Boulevard across from the Santa Barbara Harbor, local pasta lovers were somewhat cynical. Over several weeks I heard mutterings on the theme of: "Just what we need, another contemporary Italian restaurant."

Pane e Vino and Piatti in Montecito hadn't been open terribly long then, and several of the old standbys, such as the venerable Arnoldi's, Mom's on the lower East Side, and Pino's in Goleta, were still going strong.

All of these are still around, but today, there's a good argument to be made that Emilio's has become the best Italian restaurant in town.

Emilio's has recently plugged up the wall where the look-into-the-kitchen counter used to be, and added a full bar toward the rear. The bar is small--five seats--but it is a lovely addition, pouring good drinks and lending a slightly different feeling to a place that had offered just beer and wine.

Owners Kim Walker and Michael de Paolo have wisely been able to keep executive chef Peter Clements behind the stove for most of the restaurant's lifetime. The menu changes several times a year, and there are always enough tasty and original dishes to silence those earlier voices decrying another Italian restaurant.

The Critical Companion, who was not among those earlier cynics, and who considers herself especially authoritative on Italian cuisine (for reasons that are not entirely clear), goes wild when she gets to tuck into the panzanella appetizer ($5.50). "Heaven," she says. This particular heaven is a plate of roughly chopped tomatoes (especially good this time of year), cucumbers, mint, celery and red onions. The whole is doused with red wine and balsamic vinegar and served on garlic toast, but it may be the extra touches--the olive oil, the pistachios and the Gorgonzola that make this dish really special.

I could easily pass on the insalata Cesare ($4.95). I love Caesar salads, but find this version heavy-handed--too much Parmesan and anchovy flavor. Heavy-handed is a characteristic that can be applied to the other salads as well. We could use a touch of subtlety here.

But don't leave the appetizer list until the bruschetta di capra e rughetta ($6) has arrived. That's the garlic toast with a fonduta, puree of fresh tomatoes with baked, herbed goat cheese and arugula salad on the side. The fonduta and the goat cheese are a stirring, mouth-watering combination.

There are, I think, about nine pasta dishes on the menu. They make their own pasta and, although all the dishes are good, three of them are true stars. The CC goes crazy over the papardelle de aragosta ($14.95). The homemade pasta is stirred into a lobster broth, and with it Clements has mixed shaved fennel, lots of garlic, oven-dried tomatoes, lots of herbs and chunks of lobster (although I hear that the half Maine lobster that goes into the dish is now being served in one piece). Clemens really knows his stuff with regard to using herbs and seasoning, and in this dish he proves it.

My favorite dish is unlike anything I've eaten before in Santa Barbara. It is a tortelli ($10.95), a longish pasta noodle, stuffed with roasted butternut squash, which has been sauteed in brown butter with large chunks of walnuts and sage and, of all things, amaretto cookie crumbs.

And then there is the fettucelle alla salmona ($11.95), a wonderful dish of pasta, apple-wood smoked salmon, some cream, red onion, agrodolce (Italy's version of sweet and sour) and gremolata (a garnish made of minced parsley, lemon peel and garlic.) The ingredients are mixed until all the flavors and textures come together. The taste is just a little bit smoked, a little bit sweet and a little bit sour.

The pizzas at Emilio's make me think of all the "designer" ones we've seen over the past few years. If I want one of those, I'll go to a designer pizza house.

When it comes to meat, I'd opt for the cotoletta de maiale ($15.95). They've taken a thick, boneless pork loin chop, carved a pocket, added a compote of summer fruits and added a sauce of sun-dried cherries. If it were not for the aged, tough string beans on the side (a foible that ended up on several other dishes), this would have been a perfect dish.

A word about service: most of the time, the service at Emilio's is excellent, professional and cordial. But, as the CC carefully calculates, about one-third of the time you get one particular waiter, and then the situation deteriorates to indifference.

Details

* WHAT: Emilio's Trattoria.

* WHERE: 324 W. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara.

* WHEN: Open daily for dinner, 6 to 10 p.m.

* COST: Dinner for two, food only, $32 to $50.

* FYI: Full bar, no reservations, major credit cards accepted.

* ETC.: Call 966-4426.

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