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RESTARANTS : The Big Appeal

August 13, 1995|S. Irene Virbila

A few steps from a sidewalk table at On Can~on, a parade of Bentleys, Rolls, Jags and teched-out Land Cruisers rolls up to the valet. Diners clad in designer clothes step out, come to eat a $7.95 pasta or pizza at the trattoria that has moved into the old Bice space in Beverly Hills.

If Bice was about the snootiest, most expensive Italian import the town had ever seen, On Can~on tows a more democratic line. Everyone gets the same friendly but absent-minded service, and the bill is hardly likely to max out your credit card.

The restaurant is the project of Joseph Suceveanu, who also owns the popular Il Forno in Santa Monica. But with Il Fornaio just around the corner on Beverly, he could hardly call it Il Forno, could he?

On Can~on is set in a dramatic corner building with tall wraparound windows and high ceilings. The sleek, high-tech decor has been warmed up with color-rubbed walls, painterly still lifes, a cornucopia of flowers. But the noise level inside is excruciating.

One night, I take along a friend just back from Florence. "Another inexpensive Italian place?" he says when I tell him where we're going. "There must be a dozen already in the same few blocks." But at On Can~on, you actually need a reservation, a rarity anywhere these days, and it's not exactly a small restaurant.

What's the big appeal? It has to be the semi-glamorous setting, coupled with prices that sound unbelievably low, especially to anyone who ever scooped up the bill at Bice. No entree breaks the $15 mark. First courses could serve as an entire meal. It looks like a lot for the money.

The menu is huge. An antipasto of cannellini beans and sweet, fat shrimp in a creamy garlic dressing passes muster. So does the bresaola, cured, air-dried beef from the mountains, served with a pile of arugula. What could be more Italian, we think, as we put a little of both on the rough country bread.

When the fazzoletti , thin handkerchief-sized sheets of pasta with bay scallops, cottony tomatoes and shiitake, arrives, we both blurt out, "Too much sauce!" Take away everything but the pasta, cut down on the pesto and it might be very good. "Italian restaurants in L.A. can't seem to resist tarting up pasta dishes with more and more ingredients," my Italian friend laments. "They can never leave well enough alone." He's right.

A rolled up chicken breast that's stuffed with a little mozzarella, eggplant and zucchini is moist and delicious. Tagliata , grilled sliced filet mignon buried under a sharp arugula salad, seems like the perfect summer entree, until I take a bite: The beef has a strangely loose texture, like a tender minute steak. But the tiramisu is one of the few I've had recently that is actually made with mascarpone and espresso.

Another night, four of us order a slew of appetizers: Smoked salmon carpaccio and a bready pizza covered with roasted peppers, eggplant and other vegetables are both decent. But I don't know what to make of the insalata caprese : Instead of slices of mozzarella and tomato with sweet basil, a plate arrives with thick slices of sweet onion topped with slices of tomato flanked by pear slices (huh?) and a pile of bocconcini , those delectable bite-sized mozzarellas.

Spaghetti alla Roiese with roasted potatoes, prosciutto and peas is earthy and good. Grilled Norwegian salmon is the best of the entrees. Lamb chops are juicy and tender, calf's liver and onions nicely cooked, but ossobuco tastes more steamed than braised in wine and stock.

At another table, a man gulps a martini while shouting into his cellular phone, "Don't take this personal, Rod, but anybody who's anybody is down here tonight!" Small world.

It looks that way when I go back for lunch. On Can~on is open from early morning until the kitchen closes around 11 at night. Regulars come in the mornings for cappuccino, pastries or real breakfast--omelettes, frittata,

blueberry pancakes. Late afternoons, it's the espresso and dessert crowd. At lunch, every last table is packed and there's a lot of table hopping going on. Our food is disappointing, though.

Pizza alla Trevi is bready, topped with a few forlorn pieces of eggplant, bland commercial cheese, the whole effect dry, inedible. Carpaccio is watery and tasteless, concealing a salad of shredded radicchio, so old it's brown at the edges. A thick, crusty panino rustico is filled with slippery grilled and roasted vegetables that slide out every time you attempt a bite.

The service isn't stellar either. First, the wrong pasta comes out, penne in a tired tomato suace instead of pappardelle all' abruzzese (same sauce plus a few scraps of sauteed lamb), then the wrong dessert.

It's an impossible dream: vast menu, huge portions, bargain-basement prices, big-ticket locale. Something has to give. And here it's the quality of the ingredients and the attention paid to the cooking. But then if you're drinking, laughing with friends, you may not care. Because On Can~on is as sociable as the town piazza , where hanging out is as important as eating out.

On Can~on

CUISINE: Italian. AMBIENCE: Bustling trattoria with counter for lone diners, tables crammed close together and three outdoor seating areas. BEST DISHES: Fagioli all' Adriatica, spaghetti alla Roiese, rolled chicken breast, grilled Norwegian salmon with arugula, black olives and capers. WINE PICKS: 1988 Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva; 1989 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino. FACTS: 301 N. Can~on Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 247-2900. Dinner for two, food only, $35 to $60; Corkage $10. Valet parking dinner only.

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