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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Westlake Eatery Strives for Perfect Pasta : Try Pastabilities' harlot's spaghetti or angel hair with pine nuts while gazing on illuminated fountains at Water Court.

November 17, 1994|NORM CHANDLER FOX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is downright difficult not to like Italian food. Besides being wonderfully varied and flavorful, it is also much healthier than the cuisine of countries bordering Italy, such as France or Switzerland.

Nutritionists are now extolling the virtues of more vegetables and the complex carbohydrates found in pasta--items the Italians have specialized in since ancient Rome and later when, as the legend goes, Marco Polo brought back those newfangled noodles from China.

The big problem is finding good Italian restaurants in Ventura County, where the places seem to change hands faster than I change shirts. Affable Giovanni Tromba is a seasoned restaurateur who owns the well-regarded Giovanni's in Camarillo and is part owner of all three Pastabilities around the county.

My favorite is the Pastabilities in the attractive Water Court in Westlake, where Signor Tromba spends much of his time, and his son works evenings as a waiter.

The small restaurant has large windows overlooking the duck-filled ponds and a nice alfresco patio area, which is heated nightly with lamps. A small bar, an open kitchen and walls covered with canvases of local artists all contribute to the pleasing ambience.

And if you come on a Thursday night, there's live jazz to guarantee that all the senses are stimulated. The compact wine list has some nice Italian reds at easy prices. The youthful servers are well-meaning but can get bogged down at peak periods when Signor Tromba often lends a hand serving and clearing tables.

Among the antipasti , I enjoy mushrooms ($7.50) stuffed with a heady mixture of ground lamb, veal and garlic in a definitive Bordelaise sauce almost as much as raw beef carpaccio ($7) with Parmesan and arugula. The lightly battered calamari ($6.50) are crisp and greaseless, and one evening's special of melted Brie ($6) with roasted garlic cloves and fresh grapes is a most delightful combination.

But the Caesar salad ($5.50) needs more zip in the dressing, and the baked eggplant parmigiana ($5.50) turns out to be a soupy eggplant and cheese concoction.

As expected, Tromba shows his winning hand with pastas--all of which are served al dente and with either soup or salad. Pennette all'arrabbiata ($9.50), which translated means furious noodles, has a garlicky tomato sauce full of bacon, but it lacks sufficient red chili to show real anger. I prefer it when there's a knock-down battle of fiery flavors.

Much better is the capellini Sicilia ($10), in which angel hair is tossed in pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes and pesto. I highly recommend both the tender gnocchi with fat chunks of crab ($11) and flat noodles in a creamy mushroom sauce ($9.50).

Spaghetti alla puttanesca ($9.50) means pasta in a harlot's style. Allegedly, the dish evolved in the kitchens of Neapolitan bordellos, where the disreputable ladies, ravenous after a hard night's work, would gather in the wee hours and throw together whatever was left over in the kitchen. Here, it's served in a delightful rich sauce of capers, tomatoes, black and green olives, and plenty of garlic.

I'm a former New Yorker and my personal barometer for pasta is how noodles with white clam sauce is executed. Under Tromba's knowing guidance, the linguini alle vongole ($10), with a zesty, garlic-laden white wine sauce full of freshly steamed clams and parsley, is nearly perfect. Order a side of good garlic bread ($2) to mop up every last drop of the pungent clam sauce.

Entrees are also served with soup or salad, and among my favorites are a succulent breast of chicken stuffed with Gorgonzola and spinach ($14), salmon filet filled with shrimp and crab and topped with a light saffron sauce ($16), and tender veal simply sauteed in white wine and lemon ($15). While the scampi ($15) have a lusty sauce of artichokes and olives, the shrimp are dried out from overcooking.

For one of the most authentic rustic Italian dishes served locally, try the fine pork spareribs ($14), which are braised with chopped cabbage and redolent of rosemary and sage.

Desserts include commercial cheesecake, tortes and tarts ($4). Instead, I prefer having good espresso ($1.50) and some vin santo or port while gazing out at the illuminated fountains in the Water Court gardens. After such a pleasant and authentic meal, I can easily visualize the Fontana di Trevi.

Details

* WHAT: Pastabilities.

* WHERE: In the Water Court, 900 Hampshire Road, Suite X, Westlake.

* WHEN: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

* COST: Meal for two, food only, $30 to $65.

* FYI: All major credit cards; full bar, wine and beer. Call 379-4901 or 371-4394.

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