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A Fun, Roamin' Italian Trattoria

July 25, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Sometimes, when a restaurant provides good, exuberant fun, we're charitable toward any subtle shortcomings. That's how I feel about La Fontana, a brassy little trattoria on the site of the former Macaroni.

La Fontana is a classically hard-to-spot hole-in-the-wall, so a few people are bound to miss it on the first pass. Look for the window marked cucina casareccia. In Rome, that is the correct way to say "home-style cooking."

I am an optimist by nature, and when I see a sign advertising something like that, I get excited. In my mind's eye I see an Italian grandmother bustling around her kitchen, rolling out noodles and cutting them in odd shapes or benevolently watching round loaves of country bread on the rise.

If you incline to the same fantasies, put them aside. You won't find domestic scenes such as those on Beach Boulevard. It's true, however, that La Fontana does bake its own Tuscan-style white bread and that the oblong loaves provide the toast that is piled sky high with chopped tomatoes and sweet basil for the complimentary house bruschetta.

The restaurant belongs to a young couple from Rome, David and Maria Zecchini. Some diners may remember David from when he cooked at Carmelo's in Corona del Mar.

He is having a great time these days--you can hear him singing Italian songs as he handles the saute pan in his open kitchen. Maria and her sister take care of the rustic, completely charming dining room. No other local restaurant feels more like a rural trattoria in Italy.

The floor is terra-cotta tile; the walls are rough brick, and the ceiling looks as if it has been finger-painted in swirling patterns of gold leaf. At the unadorned hardwood tables, the pale green chairs have brown straw cushions--a color scheme you'd find in many an Italian farmhouse.

Remember, now, that La Fontana is in the heart of the 'burbs, where real home-style Italian dishes tend to catch people off guard. The menu reflects this. You can special-order some off-menu dishes such as osso buco, rabbit alla cacciatora and porcini mushrooms baked whole in the oven--but only if you have a minimum party of four and give a week's notice.

The menu is basically written around usual-suspect appetizers (fried calamari, carpaccio), a spate of heavily sauced pastas, sauteed veal dishes and a very occasional surprise. I'm not sure what is supposed to be Roman about this menu, but I can say that the risotto, homemade ravioli and crespelle are common to various regions of Italy.

The quality varies enormously. Zecchini likes to dazzle customers with a perfect carpaccio alla Cipriani, the nicely trimmed slices of raw beef dribbled with olive oil and topped with shavings of Parmesan cheese and extra-large capers. The beef is cut thicker than usual and has the chewy texture of meat that has never been frozen. Most Italian restaurants freeze their beef for carpaccio because it makes it easier to slice; so although this beef isn't sliced razor-thin, it has a powerful and satisfying flavor.

But then you may encounter a dish such as scamorza in terra cotta, where mozzarella cheese is baked in an earthenware crock with prosciutto and herbs. Scamorza is supposed to be smoked cheese (this is merely plain mozzarella), but my main objection is that the dish is too salty. In fact, over-salting is a general problem at this restaurant. Most of these pastas would be better if the chef had a less generous hand with the shaker.

A few dishes are delicious in spite of themselves.

Zecchini makes one of the best risotto I've tasted anywhere outside Italy, a nicely chewy, vegetarian version with sun-dried tomatoes, porcini mushrooms and zucchini. He also does a credible job with a tricky pasta special called ravioli alla zucca, ravioli with a sweet, delicate pumpkin filling, topped with brown butter.

Because I've seen evidence that the man can cook fine Italian food, it's disappointing when he Americanizes a dish by overloading it. Crespelle de li fiorentini, two light crepes in a pink tomato and cream sauce, are stuffed with too much spinach and fresh ricotta. Rigatoni alla calabrese inundates the pasta with masses of sausage, red bell peppers and spicy tomato sauce. How much better this would be if only the chef used less sauce, as I suspect he does when he prepares the dish for himself.

Insalata de spinaci e pinoli is a spinach and pine-nut salad with added gobs of feta cheese. (Hmmm. In all my travels, I have never seen an Italian eat chunks of cheese on a salad.) Scaloppine carciofi e spinaci, pieces of fried veal with artichoke and spinach, comes swimming in butter and oil. It might have been appealing in a less oily environment.

The main excitement at dessert time is affogata, a scoop of vanilla ice cream served in a glass tulip with a bracing shot of espresso poured over the top. This is something an Italian would probably have in the middle of the afternoon but refreshing in any context.

But pass on the soggy, bitter tiramisu, a misbegotten sweet that is impossible to dismiss charitably, no matter how much charm and exuberance a restaurant shows.

La Fontana is moderately priced. Antipastos are $5.75 to $6.75. Pastas are $8.95 to $12.75. Main dishes are $12.50 to $13.95.

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