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RESTAURANT REVIEW

VALLEY WEEKEND : Il Balcone Gets a Hip, Grown-Up Incarnation : Reasonably priced, good-tasting food is served in attractively decorated dining room, where noise is one of few drawbacks.

November 02, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Another good, hip, reasonably priced Italian restaurant joins the crowd on Ventura Boulevard. One of the San Fernando Valley's best small Italian restaurants, Encino's Il Balcone, just opened a new and more grown-up location just down the street in Sherman Oaks.

Owners Salvatore Caredda and Paolo Equinozio have worked wonders modernizing the site, formerly home to Le Cafe, and the new location is far more attractive than the original. The walls are high-pressure laminate (that's sheet metal finished in a dull gloss, to you and me) adorned with enormous primitivist paintings in handsome wooden frames. There are exposed ducts overhead and a glass-windowed pizza bar in a far corner of the dining room.

Rustic and modern effects are mingled, as in much 20th-Century Italian architecture. The floor is hardwood; the comfortable, high-backed wooden chairs have straw seats. The blend of modern and natural colors gives the linen tablecloths an added elegance. If you disregard the excessively intimate spacing of the tables and the high noise level (sins of which virtually every new restaurant is guilty these days), this has to be one of the most pleasant dining rooms on the street.

Some would say it's crazy for a restaurant to put its best culinary foot forward and not charge a penny for it, but Il Balcone starts everyone off with a complimentary bruschetta , which might just be the best thing you'll eat all night. The bruschetta is a simple hunk of toasted Italian bread overflowing with chopped tomatoes, dosed with extra-virgin olive oil, fresh basil and the perfect amount of salt. You'll ask for seconds--and get them.

You might start your meal with bresaola , dry-cured beef sliced thin and fanned out under a mound of shredded arugula. Another light beginning would be Il Balcone's non-traditional antipasto, which features sorpressata (a cousin of salami), a thick slice of prosciutto, a few roasted peppers and two cheeses, with a good deal of vinaigrette under them all. Still another is the wonderful stracciatella alla Romana , a simple chicken broth enriched with spinach, beaten egg and a centrally placed ball of partly melted Parmigiano.

*

One could easily make a meal out of the restaurant's fine pizzas. These are the trendy, postmodern type, cracker-thin crusts with (mostly) straightforward, uncomplicated toppings. Pizza Margherita is the classic round of tomato, mozzarella and chopped basil. Quattro formaggi is done in discreetly gooey quadrants of four different cheeses: mozzarella, Fontina, provolone and Parmigiana. Pizza con salsiccia is ultra-simple, topped with tomatoes, cheese and spear-shaped pieces of a good sweet Italian sausage. Except for pizza speciale --overdosed with broccoli, zucchini, carrot, mushroom, spinach and roasted peppers--these pies are just about fail-safe.

Il Balcone's pastas are unapologetically cooked al dente , and the sauces are solidly reliable. Angel hair shrimp, penne amatriciana and spaghetti al pomodoro are three that succeed on the basis of the restaurant's good marinara sauce, though the shrimp are slightly overcooked and there could be more pancetta and less onion in the amatriciana . One of the menu stars, ravioli burro e salvia , are stuffed with spinach and ricotta and served in a rich bath of fresh sage and melted butter. Spaghettini alla checca is thin spaghetti with fresh chopped tomato and basil--a sort of cousin to pizza Margherita. It's even better if you ask the kitchen to add a bit of chopped garlic.

Main course dishes ( secondi ) are the only items on the menu priced above $10, and they are not quite as consistent as the pizzas, pastas and appetizers. New York steak tagliata , cooked with rosemary and olive oil and then sliced up the way they do it in Florence, is a gristly piece of meat. The veal chop porcini is better, though the dried mushrooms lose their way somewhat in the thick, creamy sauce that blankets the chop.

Homemade desserts include a creamy tiramisu and a flaky, French-style apple tart. Espresso and cappuccino are exemplary, as befits a grown-up Italian operation like this one.

DETAILS

* WHERE: Il Balcone, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

* WHEN: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-11 p.m. daily.

* SUGGESTED DISHES: stracciatella alla Romana , $3.95; pizza con salsiccia , $7.95; spaghettini alla checca , $7.95; ravioli burro e salvia , $8.95.

* HOW MUCH: Dinner for two, $26-$38. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

* FYI: (818) 995-9380.

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