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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Il Moro: 'It's Good, Chef-Less Food'

August 26, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the more inexplicable restaurant names in recent days has to be Il Moro, the new cafe in the Executive Life building on Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles, brought to you by the Locanda Veneta/Ca'brea folk.

This moderately priced, casual spinoff is named for Shakespeare's Othello, the Moor of Venice, whose jealous heart was whipped to a frenzy that culminated in a grisly murder/suicide. Why name a restaurant, even a vaguely Venetian restaurant, after this character? The menu offers a muddled explanation: Othello, a Venetian who was made the ruler of Cyprus, lived in a time when Venice was a seat of enormous political power.

The name certainly doesn't give customers pause; even on a Monday night, it's hard to get a reservation before 8:45.

The standard elements in countless L.A. Italian restaurants are here given a new, classy spin. A small cafe area in the front of the restaurant is cozy as a living room. The requisite Italian grocery display is locked into lovely wood and glass cases lining a long entryway.

The dining room, with its rolling fabric ceiling, open kitchen and comfortable wicker chairs is appealing, but the jewel of this restaurant is the garden patio with its pepper trees, ferns and trickling stream. A grove of tall palms shields it from Olympic, and water falling from a tall terra-cotta spout dissolves much of the traffic noise.

*

The service can be good-hearted and fun, but it's scant; sometimes, you'll be offered cheese with your pasta, sometimes not. Obtaining another bottle of mineral water is a challenge. The kitchen, a well-oiled machine, does send out food promptly, usually before the service staff is ready for it: Runners invariably clear salad plates as they serve entrees.

The Northern Italian, faintly Venetian cooking is consistently edible if not memorable. As one friend says, "It's good, chef-less food," meaning there's nothing complex or particularly unique in these easily assembled plates.

Under a heavy coat of tomato sauce, shrimp cakes have a pleasing, springy bounce in each bite. Paper-thin beef carpaccio forms a moist, fragile skin under rumpled arugula, strands of celery root and shaved Parmigiano. In pasta e fagioli , beans and limp strands of fettuccini are suspended in a velvety, vegetal puree, but why fettuccini and not the sturdier, more pleasurable traditional macaroni?

Some salads are so big and juicy, they may be the best things here, particularly a special salad with frisee, slivered artichokes and arugula in a thirst-quenching lemon vinaigrette. The rich insalata garga brings back some of our favorite anachronisms from the '80s: Roasted pine nuts and hearts of palm are tossed with watercress, avocado and tomatoes. Only the Caesar--limp, fishy and underdressed--is uninspired.

Lemon also informs one of the best pastas, a tagliolini so thinly dressed in mascarpone, Parmigiano and lemon, it appears virtually naked, but has just enough richness and tang to seduce. It's fabulous. Less impressive are some novelty pastas, whose various tomato sauces I found acidic, almost brine-y. Truccioli , allegedly shaped like wood-shavings, are more like toothsome hair curlers. Pope hat-shaped pasta, cuffie del papa , look like fluted finger puppets.

*

Prosaic roasted potatoes and skeins of sauteed spinach weigh down every entree. Grilled salmon is OK. Likewise the lamb chops, topped with a miserly portion of oyster mushroom. Patties of good chicken and duck sausage on smoky wedges of grilled polenta--pretty darn good.

Pizza patate seems ill-proportioned, the crust very light and bubbly, the browned potatoes and rosemary buried under a thick blanket of mozzarella and gobs of Gorgonzola. Another curiosity, pizza Americana , with hot dogs, Swiss cheese and onions, might be a hit with kids; not so with us.

Dessert is a good idea here. The chocolate almond tart is as airy and delicately crusted as a souffle. Vanilla creme custard perhaps signals the welcome waning of the tyranny of creme brulee and its stick-to-your-fillings burnt sugar. Tiramisu is perfect in adorable individual ceramic pans.

* Il Moro, 11400 W. Olympic Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 575-3530. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. Beer and wine served. Valet parking. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only $28-$57.

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