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House of Pasta

November 24, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

For Los Angeles restaurateurs, there's only one sure thing: Open an Italian restaurant almost anywhere and people will come--for comforting pasta, for hearty polenta, for pollo al mattone and bistecca alla fiorentino. But at most neighborhood places, it's enough to do just a few things very well. And that's the case at Maito, a new restaurant on Olympic Boulevard near Doheny Drive.

Ensconced in a former IHOP, this lower-priced cousin of West Hollywood's Madeo has an entrance framed by lemon trees in ornate terra-cotta pots. Inside, banquettes are covered in pale green and salmon stripes, and a mix of chairs gives the room an appealingly casual atmosphere. Fresh-air fiends and smokers are seated in the trellised garden room.

Maito's menu is more truly Italian than you'd expect, with the kitchen giving even familiar dishes a twist. The strongest choices are antipasti, soups and pastas. Main courses are much less compelling. Desserts, too, could use inspiration.

For starters, I love the crostone, a thick slice of country bread floating in an earthy white bean soup swirled with green-gold olive oil. Tortino di carciofi is a sort of fluffy omelette folded around nuggets of baby artichoke. In season, there's a frittelle, or fritter, laced with ribbons of golden zucchini blossoms, and a fine-textured, almost custardy variation on polenta, made with wheat and corn flours, smothered in a robust meat and mushroom sauce. Vitello tonnato, the classic dish of sliced roast veal cloaked in a tuna and caper sauce, is made with sliced turkey, which translates beautifully. Even radicchio and endive salad is delicious, half the plate piled with ribbons of bitter radicchio, the other with crescents of Belgian endive, both dressed in an emphatic vinaigrette.

Pizzas from the wood-burning oven, however, are just OK. The dough is a little cardboardy and smeared with too much tomato sauce, and the quality of the toppings is fairly ordinary. Plus when I order a quattro stagioni, instead of four quadrants, each with a different topping, I end up with a pizza on which ham, overcooked artichokes, thinly sliced eggplant and zucchini are mixed together, making it closer to pizza cappricciosa.

Fortunately, most of the pastas shine. Tordelli, Tuscan-style ravioli, are supple and tender, filled with spinach and ricotta. To better taste the homemade pasta and filling, I prefer the ravioli drizzled with only a little brown butter perfumed with sage or tossed in the delicate zucchini blossom sauce because Maito's meat sauce can be overwhelming. For fans of dried pasta, maccheroni with a rich mushroom sauce is the thing to order. Lasagne intordellate, the house special of wavy-edged lasagna noodles in the house is too heavy.

Oddly enough, the fish soup (marred by a strong off-taste) and the lobster (dreadfully overcooked) are among the least successful dishes. After all, both owner Bruno Vietina and chef Massimo Puliti hail from the posh resort of Forte dei Marmi on the Tuscan coast. In addition, veal scaloppine, covered with thumb-sized halved artichokes, is mushy and swimming in thickened stock. Battuta, thin slices of pale, pounded beef, tastes like minute steak, and robespierre, thinly sliced New York steak with a coverlet of arugula, would be much improved with better meat and less-raggedy greens. Chicken cacciatori certainly looks terrific and, with a little less of its over-reduced tomato sauce, it could be. But the Tuscan-style ribs, slathered in a dark tomatoe-based sauce, are butter-tender and delicious.

Tiramisu, crostata (a latticed fruit tart) and torta della nonna (a cake filled with custard and chocolate) aren't really worth the calories. But don't pass up the pear cake. It's fragile and tender crust with a custard-like center enfolding chunks of sweet ripe pear.

Maito makes an earnest effort to please. The service is gracious, the place is comfortable and prices are moderate. What neighborhood doesn't need such a restaurant?

*

MAITO

CUISINE: Italian. AMBIENCE: former IHOP gone Italian. BEST DISHES: crostone con fagioli, tortino di carciofi, maccheroni al sugo di funghi, ravioli in zucchini blossom sauce, ribs. WINE PICK: Fattoria di Felsina Chianti Classico Reserve, 1990. FACTS: 8925 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 657-8445. Closed Sunday. Dinner for two, food only, $35 to $80. Corkage fee $10. Valet parking.

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