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RESTAURANTS : OC LIVE! : Romeo Art Now in a Third Site : Rancho Niguel Location Has Same Rustic Charm

October 05, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When last we checked in on our four guys from Calabria--Vittorio, Ignazio, Vincenzo and Antonio Romeo--their Romeo Cucina in downtown Laguna Beach was packing in the customers.

Since then, the brothers have been even busier. First, they collaborated on a second restaurant, in San Diego. Now, they have opened a third, in a swank South County shopping mall known as the Center at Rancho Niguel.

This latest Romeo Cucina is full of rustic appeal. Like the Laguna Beach prototype, it has a tile floor, stained wood sconces, a wood-burning pizza oven, a clientele oozing self-confidence and a perpetual line at the front door. But there are differences.

For one thing, the place has a Southwestern, rather than an Italian, look. Instead of salmon and beige, the relaxing hues of the Laguna Beach restaurant, this place gives off a faint red glow, evocative of the red clay hills of, say, New Mexico.

The banquettes are beige, true, but upholstered in what look like Native American patterns, and the eye-catching light fixtures are composed of broken, gaudily colored tiles (an inspired design stroke).

And the feel of the place, despite an elegantly mirrored bar that magically seems to extend the room's space, is more like a cafe than a restaurant.

The glass facade makes the room seem less claustrophobic, but the tables are squeezed awfully close, and acoustics do not seem to have been a priority when the blueprints were drawn. To put it briefly, this is not a place for an intimate conversation. When the restaurant is full, you virtually have to shout.

The menu is eclectic, with broad-range appeal. Don't, by the way, eat too much of the complimentary Provencale olive spread ( tapenade ) that is brought with the flat, crusty Italian ciabatta bread. It's tasty but quite salty, and you're going to be very thirsty.

Frittura mista will make you thirsty too. This tempting plate of deep-fried calamari, shrimp and swordfish is served with a spicy, grainy marinara sauce for dipping. I like the idea of misto fresco , which combines two antipasto standbys, melon with prosciutto and mozzarella Caprese (buffalo mozzarella with tomato and basil). The marriage works reasonably well, though the melon was a tad underripe.

Ortolina is grilled radicchio, endive, porcini, fennel, zucchini and a rainbow of roasted peppers. The vegetables are sliced razor-thin, making a delicate, flavorful starter.

You can choose almost any pizza from the imaginative list with confidence, because only a couple of these wondrously thin-crusted pies are less than impressive.

One of the exceptions is pizza alle melanzane . Using eggplant, duck ragu, goat cheese, garlic and rosemary as toppings may sound irresistible, but the result is a mess--an exotic sloppy Joe.

More typical, I'm glad to say, is pizza ai funghi selvaggi , topped with wild mushrooms: fresh-tasting chanterelles, porcini and shiitake, all protruding from a tangy fontina cheese blanket.

Sfincione Romeo is a double-crusted pizza stuffed with prosciutto, onions and ricotta. This may look like one of the stuffed pizzas down at the mall, but it's crisper and the ingredients are better.

The pastas, risottos and secondi piatti carry the load from here. One success story is risotto campagna , chewy arborio rice cooked with cream, porcini, asparagus, Gorgonzola cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. It may sound like a busy dish, but the kitchen doesn't get carried away, so the flavorings enhance the rice instead of overwhelming it.

Pastas tread a different path. Like most of our Italian restaurants, Romeo Cucina puts out overcooked noodles in too much sauce. More's the pity, as the bard might say, since several of the recipes here not only are creative but work. Tagliatelle alle carne rustiche , for instance, uses the same duck ragu as the pizza but this time, the sauce is well matched, by light, long egg noodles.

But while the concept of ravioli caponati is fine--a savory vegetable filling composed of eggplant, zucchini, celery, pine nuts, tomatoes and basil--the dish is undone by strongly medicinal flavors.

Spaghetti alla puttanesca is another dish that might have worked. The savory sauce for this Neapolitan classic (black olives, capers, garlic and crushed tomatoes) optionally includes anchovies, and the kitchen left them out, so I sent the dish back. It was returned with a handful of fish, unceremoniously dumped on top of the pasta.

I must add that you don't always get this sort of hasty treatment here. When we ordered an appetizer called scottata di tonno, a peppered tuna filet grilled as rare as you might get it in a Japanese restaurant and splashed with balsamic vinaigrette , we found it to have an overly fishy aftertaste. When we pointed this out to our waitress, an actual chef came over to offer a contrite apology.

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