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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Making a Big Impression : Sisley has nothing to do with painter Alfred. It's a new Italian trattoria that serves good food in huge portions.

October 14, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson review restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

As I cruised up the Golden State Freeway in the general direction of Magic Mountain, I couldn't help wondering why Sisley, a smart new Italian trattoria perched on the edge of Valencia Town Center, had been named for the well-known Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley. During dinner, it was explained to me that the name is actually a cute corruption of Sicily. Ahem. I'm putting in for the Forrest Gump Fellowship in Deductive Reasoning.

Maybe you already knew better. New Yorkers Francine and Jamie Alba have another Sisley in the Westside Pavilion, and the name is close to becoming a household word around Los Angeles. (The proper name for this place is Sisley Italian Kitchen, but the words "Italian Kitchen" are in small letters on both the sign and menu, so everyone refers to the restaurant as Sisley.)

In the evening and on weekends, count on this enormous, high-ceilinged restaurant to be a madhouse. One Saturday evening, hungry mall shoppers were signing up with gusto for a 45-minute wait.

The formula? Snappy decor has a lot to do with it: exposed black ducts, Tuscan colors like rust and beige, designer fabrics, blond wood. Squiggly wrought-iron light fixtures hang down over the tables like snakes of mystical import. A sharply attractive semi-circular copper bar provides a perfect vantage point from which to view chefs in the open kitchen.

But the decor wouldn't be enough without a well-conceived menu of Italian standbys, generously served--and that glass deli case showcasing several terrific desserts by the front entrance. Sisley's Gargantuan menu is abundant in every course, from antipasto to dessert. I recommend that you nibble, rather than nosh, on the sweet, yeasty baked rolls the waiters bring soon after you sit down, because no one leaves this place hungry.

Two fine appetizers are a light, Japanese-inspired tuna tartare (perfectly flavored with olive oil, coarse salt and green onion) and expertly blackened grilled vegetables--razor-thin slices of eggplant, slightly bitter radicchio, mildly caramelized onion, broccoli, mushrooms, tomato and zucchini--all on one glorious platter.

The menu lists 18 pizzas, but the kitchen will make just about any topping you can dream up, as long as they have the ingredients. One featured category is large, thin-crusted pizzas, the lead item from that list being bacon, potato and egg, which I rate a noble miss. When I've had pizzas made from these same ingredients in Italy, the crust was cracker-thin and the potatoes sliced ultra-thin. This crust is too thick to make these toppings work, and the potato isn't quite crisp enough to make you forget how much starch you are eating.

At lunch, the restaurant sells lots of salads. The Gorgonzola salad, for instance, is above reproach, a pungent mixture of romaine, mushrooms, sliced onions and juicy Roma tomatoes, tossed with a handful of walnuts and the right amount of crumbled Gorgonzola.

It sells even more panini (Italian sandwiches), and you can't argue with a sandwich when it employs one of the best homemade rolls anywhere--a giant, golden, sesame-topped dome that is soft and yielding in the center. Good fillings like Papa John's (light, flavorful meatballs) or smoked salmon (with fresh dill and cream cheese) end up playing second fiddle to this bread, which soaks up marinara sauce with the best of them.

The pastas are chewy, saucy versions that would make an Italian mutter something about excess (they come in big bowls). My friends fancy the chicken and goat cheese linguine, a typically excessive dish. Personally, I think olive oil, garlic and maybe a little tomato is all that good linguine needs, and that throwing in sun-dried tomatoes, big chunks of chicken and dollops of soft goat cheese is overkill.

The other pastas are in the same spirit. Hearty New York-style sausage ravioli. Linguine carbonara with out-sized hunks of pancetta. The inevitable pasta al pesto , the sauce rich and grainy with chopped basil. Bow-tie pasta in a white wine sauce dosed with Dijon mustard. An overloaded primavera saved by a delicious white wine sauce and a pile of deftly prepared penne .

Fish are well-prepared--orange roughy broiled with a delicate crumb crust and served with a frothy red pepper coulis, halibut cooled with a lime cilantro dressing. Roast chicken is also dependable, properly blackened and crackling-crisp on the skin side.

The desserts you spotted in the glass case are all big hits. Our waiter was quick to mention that Bon Appetit magazine had just voted the tiramisu the best in Los Angeles. Me, I'm going for some of these wonderful biscotti , some lemon meringue cake or a rich slice of chocolate pecan pie.

Where and When

What: Sisley Italian Kitchen, 24201 W. Valencia Blvd., Valencia.

Suggested dishes: tuna tartare, $7.50; Gorgonzola salad, $6.50; Papa John's meatball panino , $6.75; penne Bolognese , $8.45; orange roughy, $9.25.

Hours: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $21 to $35. Full bar. Parking in lot. American Express, MasterCard, Visa and Diner's Club.

Call: (805) 287-4444.

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