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RESTAURANTS : Welcome to the Great Outdoors : Dolce Is Big on Alfresco--and Rich Italian Fare

March 23, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

"I don't understand California," remarked a friend while we were having dinner at Newport Beach's swank new Dolce. "Here it is freezing, and people are sitting outside in their shirt sleeves."

In a moment, my transplanted Brooklynite buddy would move closer to the Polynesian-style fire pit that provides much of the warmth on Dolce's terrace, and the outdoor dining phenomenon would cease to be a problem for him. But the fact remains that for a good many of us, alfresco dining is one of life's great pleasures. It had better be, at least for Dolce's sake.

Outdoor dining is one of the raisons d'etre for this courtly restaurant, designed in the manner of a tumbledown Tuscan villa. There's more outdoor than indoor seating. In fact, some may find Dolce's interior stuffy, almost cramped. You certainly wouldn't call it grand comfort.

But first-time restaurateur David Ast has pulled out all the stops to make Dolce a real destination. It's all housed in the former Shiraz, which, after lying fallow for more than three years, has been renovated beyond recognition in a spasm of quasi-Tuscan elegance. The outer facade is salmon and terra cotta, with a striking tile roof. The main floor and bathrooms sport beautiful marble tiles, while the dining room--which, as I've said, some will gratefully pass up for the outdoor dining--is done up with enough gilt-edged mirrors, chandeliers and paintings for a Florentine nobleman's antechamber.

Out on the terrace, you sink into cushioned wrought-iron chairs tinged with a subtle green patina. The tables are set with fine linens, and the clink of glassware partially offsets the sound of traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, visible just past a glass barricade.

The location is a pity, actually. Put Dolce next to a sand dune and this terrace would be a world-class comfort zone. Placed as it is, directly adjacent to a busy thoroughfare, it forces us to imagine a transcendental seclusion. But no matter. In Southern California, we're experienced at that particular fantasy.

The chef at Dolce can be excused for any lack of fantasy. Reached by telephone, Como native Carlo Mazzola expressed some frustration when asked why his menu was not more original. "I'd love to introduce specials like casseruola d'anatra (duck casserole) and pappardelle coniglio (rabbit with broad noodles)," he said, "but who is going to eat them?"

Well, I would, for one. But since that strategy is unlikely to be deployed any time soon, look to Dolce for yet more of the upscale, elegantly presented, overly rich Italian fare that abounds in Newport, and if you want rustic Italian fare, go up to Los Angeles and eat at Posto or Ca' Brea.

Now for the cheering section. Mazzola may be muzzled, but there's no denying the man can cook.

He honed his talents at Florence's Cibreo and in Japan, and occasional glimmers of inspiration highlight a dish or two from his menu. None of us, for instance, expected a cold appetizer plate called piatto alla Sofia Loren to be so tasty, or the olive- and garlic-flavored oil that accompanies the focaccia bread to be such a perfect complement to what was to come.

Ms. Loren would probably eat everything on the plate named for her. It's a colorful mix of fresh mozzarella, softly ripened tomatoes, savory marinated eggplant, mixed roasted peppers and good quality imported olives. If she were in a more carnal mode, she might choose sinfonia di prosciutto e bresaola , an artfully presented plate of cured ham and beef with lemon and capers.

The best hot appetizer might be cuori di carciofi ripieni , where artichokes are baked with a savory filling of minced vegetables and ricotta. Another good one is portobello mushrooms grilled like little steaks, garnished with a tangy shrimp and balsamic vinegar dressing. Calamari dorati is simply the best version of fried calamari in the county.

Pastas are listed in a section of the menu given the grandiose Italian name i farinaci . If there were a higher proportion of farinaceous matter and less sauce, I'd be happy to go along with that title. A case in point: The pappardelle with porcini mushroom sauce is rich and tasty, but the sauce and the mushrooms are too slippery for the flat and wide noodles. You end up eating the sauce with bread.

Farfalle Genovese is one of the few pastas on this menu that looks both simple and original, but the dish--bow-tie pasta with diced potatoes and green beans--is simply too bland. Gnocchi al Gorgonzola ? Too creamy. Agnolotti del giorno ? Beautifully light pasta, but too much butter.

Linguine ai frutti di mare --now here's a dish to get your teeth into. It's an exquisite version of the familiar linguine with mixed seafood. The chef has loaded it with prawns, scallops, mussels, clams and chunks of fresh sea bass, but added enough pasta to give the dish balance.

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