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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Louise's Spiffs Up the Menu in Pasadena

March 17, 1995|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The southeast corner of Colorado and Fair Oaks in Pasadena, former home of the Rite Spot, is now a Louise's.

The Rite Spot had fabulous art direction and spotty food. Even after it was sold and the new owner hung a witty sign saying, "Now Serving Food," there wasn't much there worth eating.

Now, people will pass by and say, oh, another Louise's, and if they happen to like any one of the other 12 Louise's in the Southland, they might wander in. If they have tried a Louise's in the past and didn't like it, they probably will avoid this one and maybe grouse that Louise's Trattorias are like ragweed, popping up everywhere.

They might want to reconsider.

I know, because I am a former Louise's avoider myself. In the past, I found the food tricked-up--salads weighted with dressing, pastas confused by too many ingredients, the general quality less than excellent.

Louise's co-owner Bill Chait also knew that the food at all the Louise's Trattorias could be better. Even though people flocked to Louise's, Chait wanted more than a popular chain restaurant: He wanted a chain that served good quality food. A year ago he hired a top-gun consultant, a man who owns one of the priciest Italian restaurants in town, Mauro Vincenti of Rex Il Ristorante. Vincenti promised to create authentic, high-quality Italian food for all the Louise's without impacting the profit margin.

Thus, good olive oil, good homemade and imported pasta, ham from Parma, authentic Reggiano Parmesan and Italian chefs have come to Louise's Trattorias throughout Southern California. The new Pasadena store opened with these innovations in place.

The Rite Spot's glamorous art nouveau Mecca Room is still in mint condition. Otherwise, the space looks, well, like a Louise's, with all the chain's reassuring, slick commercial appeal.

What's new and different here--and at every Louise's as well--is the revamped menu. A few dishes stayed: the three citrus grilled chicken, Louise's popular pizzas, the best-selling penne rigate loaded with asparagus, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and pesto.

Not everything is perfect. Salads may be dressed with better olive oil, but they're as sodden as ever. The most obvious improvement lies in the appetizers and the pastas.

An antipasti plate for two is a great choice for the peckish who want a taste of this and that: a few al dente cannellini beans, small chunks of dreamy Reggiano Parmesan; soft, thin-as-skin prosciutto; grilled marinated peppers. Too bad the bread, an oily focaccia or a sweetish walnut loaf, isn't better. Fresh mussels, sans shells, nestle into a soft bed of white beans to be scooped up on smoky grilled bread: a comforting, robust treat. Artichoke ravioli, a hit at my table, have a slightly sweet, nutty interior and a vivid red sauce with chewy chunks of pancetta.

Pastas are eggy, homemade noodles or the excellent dry Latini products with a lot of personality. The improvement is astounding: Louise's former aglio e olio was a greasy mess with mushrooms, cheese, limp noodles. The authentic new version is a study in bare-bones simplicity that flaunts the quality of its four ingredients: olive oil, garlic, red chiles, spaghetti. Both rigatoni dishes are excellent: The puttanesca comes with tomatoes, capers, wonderfully strong olives; rigatoni with grilled vegetables tastes like something a good cook tosses together after raiding her garden. Best of all is the uncluttered penne all'arrabbiata-- good, chewy quill-shaped pasta in a superb light, spicy tomato sauce.

Specialty, thin-crusted pizzas appeal to me more than Louise's thicker-crusted, cheesier "traditional" pizzas. Try the simple pie with tomato, basil and mozzarella or the one with goat cheese, Roma tomatoes and pencil asparagus.

Entrees are less successful. Pollo al mattone , an entire marinated, pressed chicken is bland and significantly undercooked one night. Accompanying mashed potatoes are a riot of salt. Fresh ahi tuna, promised medium rare, comes well done in a gluey sherry sauce.

Desserts are the same huge portions of rich factory-made sweets.

While there's still room for more, the improvement at Louise's is gratifying. An accomplishment.

* Louise's Trattoria, 2 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (818) 568-3030. Open for lunch and dinner 7 days a week. Beer and wine served. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$55.

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