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LA DOLCE VITA : Stunning Gelato and Moderate Prices Make Alto Palato a Sweet Deal

October 02, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

In Italian, to say someone has alto palato --literally, "high palate"--is to say that they have impeccable taste. It's an expression that could easily describe Mauro Vicenti, the demanding, Roman-born owner of Rex il Ristorante in Downtown Los Angeles, who has given that name to the new West Hollywood restaurant he owns with Danilo Terribili.

Actually, it's more born-again than brand new, occupying the site of Vicenti's old restaurant Pazzia, which he closed in January. It looks very much like Pazzia--the same large-scale space, sleek, tapestry-covered chairs and abstract paintings as big as rugs. A few of the waiters are familiar too. But where Pazzia was elegant, formal, expensive, Alto Palato is casual, friendly in feeling and moderate in price. It's a good neighborhood trattoria that, instead of taking up a little storefront, occupies this rather grand room. The partners also added on a soaring space that fronts La Cienega, where they have installed a bar, gelato display and wood-burning pizza oven, giving Alto Palato entree to a lively new late-night scene along La Cienega.

The pizzas, thin-crusted and blistered at the edges, are very Italian, spare by California standards. One has a thin veil of melted mozzarella overlaid with pungent, peppery arugula and silky slices of prosciutto ribboned with fat; another delicious version is topped with potatoes, rosemary and caramelized onions. One night in the outdoor courtyard, decorated with potted lemon trees, I watched a large table of young Italians put away pizza after pizza, folding the slices in half, talking, smoking and, finally, polishing off their informal meal with house-made gelato-- and, of course, tiny cups of espresso.

Alto Palato is still a restaurant in progress, and its menu of salads, soups, simple pastas, fish specials and grilled meats has its ups and downs. You can count on a decent and varied antipasto plate that has a miniature caprese of tomato, basil and mozzarella, a little bresaola (air-dried beef) , salami and prosciutto, and fig and melon, all for $7. A lemon-drenched seafood salad is, depending on the day, a mix of tender squid, shrimp, scallops and octopus. I like the polpette , meatballs in a simple tomato sauce, better than the suppli , fried rice balls.

Soups are rustic and filling: there's an earthy chickpea soup infused with fresh rosemary, or pappa al pomodoro , a porridge-like Tuscan soup of bread, tomatoes and basil--very much an acquired taste. Pastas are just as un-fancy: wide pappardelle noodles tossed with a meaty ragu laced with mushrooms and peas, and rigatoni all' amatriciana , made with Roma tomatoes, pancetta and sharp Romano. You can order your spaghetti tossed with sauteed zucchini weighed down with cheese, or with ricotta seasoned with lots of lemon peel, pungent nutmeg and black pepper--another acquired taste. To get prices down without compromising on the quality of the ingredients, the owners have excluded high-ticket items like lobster, scampi, duck and game birds. But they still use good tomatoes, prosciutto, cheese and produce. (Salad greens, however, could be a little less ragged.) Something like the economical rollata di vitello, a roll of veal stuffed with spinach greens, mortadella and frittata, is more interesting than a piece of grilled meat any day. Spezzatino tastes just like what it is, a veal stew, cooked forever, until the meat is soft as old rags. The grilled prime rib is just OK--for $11.95 a person (for two), it's not a big surprise. However, the special veal chop offered one night, roasted with rosemary and served in its juices, was remarkable for its deep flavor and tenderness, the best veal chop I've had in town.

Searching the uninspired two-page list for an interesting Italian wine to accompany the food is something of a chore. The best you can hope for is Antinori's '93 Orvieto ($16) or '89 Chianti Classico Riserva ($28), a '92 Bolla Chardonnay ($17) or a '91 Plozner Merlot ($18).

A glass table in the center of the room holds the dessert assortment: an apricot crostata, a traditional open-face fruit tart with a thick, cookie-like crust; a fine-textured chocolate cake made with bread crumbs, apples and amaretto; a rather dry ricotta cheesecake, and straightforward creme caramel. Given the choice, I'd pass up all these sweets for the gelato every time.

One of the waiters, Gino Rindone from Turin, makes the absolutely first-rate gelato. The best is the hazelnut, made from fragrant nuts from Piedmont. His chocolate is deep and dark, while fior di latte, produced with eggs and cream (no vanilla), shows off the pure taste of cream. Sometimes he offers refreshing Sicilian granita di limone (lemon ice) and one of summer's greatest pleasures, granita di caffe , a rough slush of espresso ice crowned with loosely whipped cream. He also creates perfect espresso and cappuccino, topped with foam soft as clouds. That alone makes Alto Palato worth a visit.

Alto Palato, 755 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 657-9271. Closed Sundays. Bar open until 1:30 a.m. serving pizzas, sandwiches, appetizers and desserts. Dinner for two, food only, $30 to $60. Corkage $10.

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