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Beer to Live For, a View to Die For


SUNSET BEACH — The microbrewery restaurant is an established feature of the dining scene these days, but Italian Brewery has a secret weapon: a killer view.

It's directly adjacent to slips at Peter's Landing, where hundreds of yachts and other pleasure craft moor. In the years that have elapsed since this location housed MacArthur Park, a number of restaurants have come and gone. Italian Brewery is the latest, and it isn't perfect, but it's the best restaurant to have surfaced at Peter's Landing for quite some time.

Most microbrewery restaurants specialize in pub dishes to go with the beers brewed on the premises. Here the food is pizza, pasta and several char-broiled entrees. The Italian connection is a stretch, though, as a glance at the dining room reveals.

There is a campy mural of street scenes from Venice, Florence and Livorno on a rear wall, but otherwise Italian Brewery has "beach" written all over it. A big-screen TV is always blaring over by the bar, bamboo fans twirl overhead and T-shirts are conspicuously for sale at the front counter. At bottom, the food, though often surprisingly good, is basically intended as an exclamation point on the beer and cheer.

Some people may choose to sit outside on the Polynesian-style patio, a glassed-in quadrangle complete with a 7-foot fire pit (not for ceremonial purposes, in case you were getting any ideas). Inside, the best tables are the half-dozen at the panoramic windows, which look directly out onto the boats.

Get one of those window seats if you can. One evening I had a great time sipping a fruity lager called Strawberry Fields Forever as I watched night slowly fall. Another night, a few of us observed a small boat party less than 50 feet away, and our consensus was that we were clearly having a better time than the Top Siders set.

It was the brew that fueled this feeling. All eight beers and ales at Italian Brewery are produced in the establishment's five 600-gallon vats by Malcolm McDonald, a winemaker-turned-brewmeister. Scottish-born McDonald formerly plied his trade at the Belmont Brewing Co. in Long Beach, and he's clearly a pro. You can try six of his brews in a $4.50 taster set; individually, they're $2.75 a pint or $4 for a 32-ounce schooner.

Bolsa Chica Sludge tastes a lot better than it sounds; it's a really dark beer with a hint of bitterness. Mr. Toad's Wild Rye is light and creamy, with an actual hint of rye in the finish. Another good one to try is Hersbrucher Hefeweizen, an unfiltered wheat beer that goes down easily.

The foods, naturally, tend to promote a healthy thirst, and many are quite good. What makes the calamari so crisp and tasty is that they are flash-fried at high temperature in pure peanut oil. The spinach and artichoke dip, a caloric mixture of butter, cheese, shallots, pureed spinach and finely minced artichoke hearts, is hard to resist on hot tortilla chips.

All pizzas are baked in a wood-fired oven, which is an advantage--with certain pizzas. The thin-crusted, New York-style cheese pizza hits the spot, and you can taste the wood smoke in every bite. But the Thai chicken pizza has a sticky, cloying, over-sugared topping of chicken, crushed peanuts, carrots and bean sprouts.

The menu devotes two pages to pastas, everything from a chicken and shrimp pasta (which the menu calls jambalaya) to one with more of that sugary Thai chicken stuff. Spaghettini comes up slightly overcooked with either a workmanlike marinara sauce, some dense homemade meatballs or sweet Italian sausage. The penne with four cheeses has way too much cheese, plus a creamy marinara sauce that just complicates things.

Angel hair pasta, served alla checca, is too oily. Pasta with mascarpone cream sauce is another questionable penne concoction. I can go along with the sauce as far as the sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus tips and pine nuts, but they lose me when they throw in snow peas on top of all that.

Sides of pasta also come with veal and chicken entrees, all of which are just huge. Veal piccata unnecessarily, though not objectionably, adds artichoke hearts to the usual flavoring of capers and lemon juice. My crusted chicken Romano must have weighed close to a pound, counting its heavy breading. I couldn't finish half of it.

There are dependable home-style American dishes too. The massive meatloaf portion, big enough for two, is drenched with brown gravy and flanked by good lumpy mashed potatoes and grilled onions. The kitchen makes only one attempt at anything but Italian and home-style--sea bass in parchment--and it acquits itself rather well. The fish is baked in an actual parchment bag (rather than the usual aluminum foil) along with chopped Roma tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, lemon juice and fresh herbs, and comes out quite moist.

The desserts are simple and unpretentious but basically satisfying. There's a hot fudge sundae made with Haagen-Dazs vanilla and fresh whipped cream; it would be terrific with better fudge sauce. The cheesecake features fresh glazed strawberries and a heavy graham flour crust. Tiramisu, a light interpretation of this classic, relies on spongy ladyfingers.

The lunch menu is a bargain, with nothing more than $5.95. Sandwiches, especially one featuring a spicy, breaded veal parmigiana, are terrific and quite well matched to ice cold brews on hot August afternoons.

Italian Brewery is moderate to expensive. Appetizers are $3.95 to $10.95. Pizzas are $6.95 to $11.95. Pastas are $6.95 to $14.95. Specialty dishes are $8.95 to $17.95.


* 16390 Pacific Coast Highway, Sunset Beach.

* (310) 592-2337).

* Lunch 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily; dinner 4:30-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4:30-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

* Visa, MasterCard and American Express.

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