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RESTAURANTS : Italian Cafe Separates the Wheat From the Chaff

August 25, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Emmer is an ancient, vitamin-rich wheat (Triticum dicoccum) that used to be widely grown in Europe. It was a staple in ancient Rome, where it was called far , and it's still around--the modern Italian name for it is farro. With the centuries, however, farmers have mostly given up raising emmer because it's hard to thresh clean from the chaff.

Today, the main arenas for emmer would be a cattle trough (cows don't mind a little chaff) or a health food store, where it may be called spelt (though technically that's a different primitive wheat, T. spelta). Finding this exotic grain on the table in a trendy L.A. Italian restaurant might be a surprise. It's almost a shock to discover that it plays a major role in an unassuming Newport Beach cafe called--hey, this is actually kind of a tip-off--Cafe Il Farro.

And the surprises just begin there. Cafe Il Farro turns out to be a high-quality, highly authentic Italian restaurant, despite a beachy decor and a dependence on foot traffic in a neighborhood near the Balboa Pier, where feet are as likely to sport in-line skates as Birkenstocks.

The three cafe umbrellas parked outside don't reveal a lot. If you peek in, the impression is of just another beachfront cafe: lots of glass-topped tables, walls painted a familiar beige.

Once you enter, though, you are seized by the feeling Italy is close by. The bar by the door has the expected shelves and bottles, but the bottles turn out to be Italian syrups and Chiantis, hardly the usual Newport tipples. The deli case is just below the bar, and it's filled with inviting-looking foods such as calamari salad, vegetables marinated in olive oil and homey Italian pastries.

The art has classical themes (cherubs, bathhouses, views of ancient Rome), well suited to the room but rather at odds with the surfer culture just beyond the door. At the dead center of the room is a wooden table bearing a display of premium imported groceries worthy of an Italian delicatessen.

You get your introduction to farro whether you ask for it or not. Everyone gets served rustic, whole-meal bread loaded with the brownish ancient grain, crusty and perfect for dipping in hot pepper- and garlic-laced olive oil, the bread's deserving foil.

Don't fill up on the bread. One of the best appetizers is antipasto Mediterraneo, which bears no resemblance to the antipasto plate of cold cuts, cheese and pickled vegetables you find in conventional Italian restaurants. This one is artichokes, roasted peppers, spinach, rings of soft calamari and chewy little shrimp sweetened by a touch of balsamic vinegar.

The delicious insalata di spinaci e pollo is another dependable choice. The salad is simple and bountiful, spinach leaves tossed with grilled chicken and dressed in a frothy vinaigrette. Minestrone con pastina , however, is a disappointment. The word pastina made me think of comfort food-- pastina was the pearl-like soup pasta that the Italian nonne (grannies) in the apartment house I lived in as a boy used for coddling young children. But there was no pastina in this soup, only overcooked vegetables in a dull, salty broth.

That soup is one of the very few weak spots here. For instance, the kitchen makes a vegetable soup with farro and unsmoked bacon ( pancetta ) that is much more interesting than the minestrone. Basically, though, I recommend you eat your farro in one of the many farro pastas. All of them are really quite good.

Farruci con burro e formaggio has to be the star. The menu describes farruci as farro tube pasta. It's long, thick, light-brown macaroni, full-flavored and chewy, that tastes of whole grain bread. For this dish it is sauteed simply with butter, Pecorino cheese and a little Parmesan, and that's all it needs. Let's be grateful for small favors, too. There's only a little butter and cheese in it, making for a light, digestible dish.

Fili aglio olio pepe is a thick farro spaghetti, this time cooked in an oil that tastes suspiciously like the oil brought to your table. No one is complaining. You can have your emmer and eat it too by ordering this dish con salsiccia --with sausage. This way you get the wheat in whole grain form along with a sweet, delicate Italian sausage, the same one the restaurant uses on its thin-crust pizza.

During lunch, when business is slow, you have a choice of delicious Italian sandwiches ( panini ). Panino Italiano is the closest to a submarine, made as it is with ham, salami, provolone and mortadella. I prefer panino Toscano: prosciutto, cappicola, provolone, roasted peppers and rich mascarpone. But both of these go subs one better, because they're on fresh, puffy, oil-rubbed focaccia bread instead of plain old Italian bread.

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