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Style / Restaurants : Four-part Harmony

February 04, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Four hands-on partners in a restaurant could be a recipe for disaster. But not at Cucina Paradiso, a new restaurant in Redondo Beach, where two cooks, Alex Lombardo and Craig D'Alessandro, an accomplished waiter, Orazio Afranto, and an experienced manager, Issac Rivera, make an ideal team. All four are from Drago in Santa Monica, where Lombardo was opening chef, D'Alessandro was sous-chef and later head chef, and Rivera and Afranto both worked the dining room. They had dreamed of starting a place of their own, and now they've done it, turning a nondescript space on Catalina Avenue, next to the sports bar Dante's Inferno, into a sophisticated Italian restaurant.

The quartet's teamwork is impressive. You'll see one of the chefs occasionally emerge from the kitchen to greet familiar West Los Angeles faces who have sought out the new place in Redondo Beach. For their part, Rivera or Afranto, resplendent in pleated white shirts and black bow ties, don't miss a thing. Noting that you've already devoured one pizza bread, they reassure you another is on the way. And here it comes, a billowy puff of dough, no heavy toppings to weigh it down, only a splash of olive oil, a sprinkling of Parmesan and rosemary. Wine is expertly poured, leaving enough room in the glass for the wine to breathe. And service is just as good when the place is full--short of a power failure, it seems, nothing would overwhelm either this staff.

The waiters' fluttering attentions are so endearing that all you want to do is sink into your chair and be pampered. Someone might spontaneously bring out an order of the arancini--soft, sticky rice balls stuffed with a beef ragu--to nibble while you look at the menu. When we ask for an antipasti plate of salame and other cold cuts, out comes a magnificent platter of smoked raw-cured mountain ham, chewy cacciatori or hunters' salame, thin slices of browned cotechino (extra-spicy sausage) and a rustic salame laced with black peppercorns. It's followed by a dish of glistening roasted peppers and tomatoes, grilled zucchini and braised bitter endive, bathed in a spunky anchovy vinaigrette. "I thought you needed something with a little color to go with the sausages," our waiter says. And he's right: All the sparkling flavors are delicious together.

We enjoy the food immensely. This is lusty eating, which is just what all of us had in mind. One of my guests happily laps up Tuscany's famous pappa al pomodoro, a porridge-like soup of tomatoes thickened with leftover bread and seasoned with basil. The kitchen has just the right touch with pasta, too, which is made fresh in a glassed-in pasta room in back. Pappardelle, inch-wide yellow egg noodles, are sauced with a rustic duck ragu that has just a tad too much tomato for you to really taste the duck. But all the pasta dishes are judiciously sauced. The malloreddu, a short, ridged pasta from Sardinia, is served in a stick-to-your-ribs sauce of tomato, sausage and fennel seeds. The gracefully light tomato sauce makes spaghetti with seafood here one of the better versions in L.A. (That and the fact that none of the shellfish is overcooked.)

And every day offers a different risotto del giorno. On our first visit, it is an exemplary risotto with pheasant and morels, made with a good broth, delicately perfumed with morels. Sometimes it's risotto with porcini, with Barolo or with aceto balsamico. I like, too, the way the waiter offers to grate the Parmigiano, just a bit, which is how it should be done. Too much cheese, and you aren't able to taste the rice or the broth it has absorbed.

Much of Cucina Paradiso's regular menu is reminiscent of Drago's, at least in style. But now that this restaurant is up and running, the chefs are zeroing in on specials and it's worth paying attention to the waiter's recitation. One night, there is a wonderful, moist piece of Chilean sea bass (high praise from someone who thinks this is one of the world's least interesting fish), set on a bed of borlotti beans flavored with speck, a smoky, raw-cured ham. And a fat slab of fresh albacore cooked beautifully and simply with olive oil, lemon and garlic. Another night, there is a tagliata, beef filet seared rare and sliced under peppery arugula. And on my last visit, the specials include a magnificent mixed grill of venison, beef filet and baby lamb chops.

This is a place where you order--and eat--far more than you ever intended. As we sop up every bit of sauce on our plates with chunks of bread, I catch our waiter watching a couple file out, doggie bags in hand. He shrugs: "In Italy, when we eat, we eat!" Restaurateurs there would hang their heads in shame if diners took home half the food on their plates.

Desserts are laid out on a granite counter: a tall, creamy tiramisu, the dessert no Italian restaurant in L.A. dares do without; tarte tatin, another favorite that's actually French; a marscapone cheesecake, dense and not too sweet. The best, though, is moist and tender bread pudding sitting in a pool of creme anglaise.

With its earthy Italian cooking, lively staff and moderate prices, Cucina Paradiso is indeed a little bit of paradise for Italian food lovers. Bravo, ragazzi!

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CUCINA PARADISO

CUISINE: Italian. AMBIENCE: Lively contemporary Italian with professional service and glassed-in pasta-making room. BEST DISHES: Mixed antipasto plate, spaghetti with seafood, malloreddu with sausage and fennel. WINE PICKS: Livio Felluga Pinot Grigio, 1993. FACTS: 1611 S. Catalina Ave., Suite 150, Redondo Beach; (310) 792-1972. Closed Saturday and Sunday at lunch only. Dinner for two, food only, $35 to $65. Corkage $10. Valet parking.

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