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Quality Is Job One at Trattorias : Louise's Chain Takes Pride in Great Food, Decent Prices

February 01, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are 17 Louise's Trattorias scattered around California and other states. Two of these palazzos of low-cost, high-quality Italian food are here in Orange County, one in Irvine and the other at the Pierside Pavilion in Huntington Beach.

I've been following the Louise's success story for years, impressed by the way owner Bill Chait has endeavored to improve the quality of his operation. When I think of the better restaurant chains, Robert Frost's famous poem "The Road Not Taken" comes to mind. Chait has taken the more arduous snowy path, and that has made all the difference. It's a pity certain other chains haven't followed the same example.

The menu at Louise's Trattorias hasn't changed very much in the past several years (though a few items, such as farfalle pasta and half roasted chicken with rosemary, have been dropped). The dishes have, though. They're now being made with authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, a good imported pasta brand (Latini) and a high-grade extra-virgin olive oil (Pietra Pinta). The menu points all this out and even boasts about the house mineral water. Louise's proudly features Cottorella, from Lazio province, just outside Rome.

Much of the credit for the recent changes is owed to Mauro Vicente, owner of the Los Angeles restaurants Rex Il Ristorante and Alto Palato, who has acted as a consultant to Louise's. This Rome-born restaurateur was the first to bring authentic haute Italian cooking to Southern California, and his restaurants have set the highest standards. Vicente has helped rethink almost every dish on Louise's menu, and decidedly for the better.

The crowds are calling out for more. Every time I've stopped in at a Louise's lately, there has been a wait for tables, usually between 15 and 20 minutes. And it's understandable. At these prices--virtually nothing over $10--a meal chez Louise is pretty much a win-win situation.

The decor at the Irvine branch is tasteful if uninspiring: lots of blond wood, an open kitchen and overhead light fixtures that look like peach gelatin molds. Outside the restaurant's glass facade, you see other chain eateries: Diedrich's Coffee, Penguin's, Hof's Hut and a Boston Market. Hey, welcome to the 21st century.

Luckily, there is a bit of the 19th century in what you eat here. Order risotto con porcini and chances are it won't be a far cry from the mushroom risotto you'd have gotten in the Venetian countryside a century ago. Louise's uses a high-quality short-grain rice called carnarole and a generous quantity of dried mushrooms, making a flavorful risotto brimming with plump pieces of porcini.

One appetizer not to miss is the sausage pizzetta, a cracker-thin pizza covered with crumbled Italian sausage, chunks of Roma tomatoes and slivers of green onion. Bruschetta pomodoro e basilico is simply toasted Italian bread topped with diced tomatoes and dressed with olive oil, garlic and sweet basil. There's an appetizer of meaty roasted portobello mushrooms served with asparagus, caramelized onions and watercress in a light tomato vinaigrette.

Even the familiar-sounding minestrone Genovese makes an impression. It's a rich vegetable broth laced with pesto, potatoes and tiny white beans.

Pastas are the showpieces at most trattorias, and Louise's is no exception. A few, particularly broad noodles such as pappardelle and fettuccine, are made on the premises. The rich, eggy pappardelle come with a tomato cream sauce generously laden with pieces of sausage, plum tomatoes and roasted garlic.

*

For my money, lasagna al forno is the restaurant's best dish--and no wonder, since Vicente imported one of Italy's most famous chefs to hone the recipe. This lasagna pays homage to the province of Emilia-Romagna, whose capital, Bologna, is synonymous with a delicate meat sauce based on minced veal. Six or seven layers of lasagna are layered with a classic salsa Bolognese and the top layer is finished with melted Fontina cheese. The whole thing floats on a delicate tomato sauce.

Dishes based on dried pasta are fine, too, all uncompromisingly cooked al dente. Spaghetti Latini with meatballs definitely has bite. Penne all'arrabbiata is tossed in a sauce of tomato, garlic and crushed red pepper.

The menu does get too creative at times. Spaghetti Latini can also be ordered with smoked chicken, roasted pine nuts, red peppers and basil--an intriguing idea, but the component parts are so hard to handle with a fork that the dish becomes sort of annoying. My artichoke-filled ravioli were soggy, and the extras on the plate--fresh sage, Roma tomatoes and pancetta--confound the pasta's simple, rustic appeal.

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