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Eats: Ventura County | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Dining as Entertainment

The proprietor of Gino's Trattoria puts on a show along with a great meal.

March 20, 1997|WENDY MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A drive down Thousand Oaks Boulevard provides a mobile history of contemporary retail. Storefronts of the '50s stand sentry near '60s and '70s strip centers, which cower in the shadows of grander '80s and '90s promenades and malls.

In one particularly unassuming glass-front structure--was it originally an ice cream parlor? a hamburger place?--sits Gino's Trattoria. Given its location, the restaurant is easy to overlook. But don't. You'd miss an experience. You'd miss Gino.

What Michelangelo is to the Sistine Chapel, Orson Welles is to "Citizen Kane" and the one man is to the one-man band, Gino Setola is to Gino's Trattoria. He is the guiding light, the driving force, the singular vision of his restaurant. Gino does almost everything--he cooks, he bakes, he serves, he greets the guests at the door, he entertains them with witty banter throughout the meal. This is not so much a restaurant as a performance art space.

And by the way, his Italian (Neopolitan) food is delicious, unfussy and reasonably priced.

The Naples-born chef spent nearly two years as co-owner of the ritzy and roomy Ritrovo in Westlake. This more modest establishment, which he opened six months ago, is a storefront space that has just the essentials: 11 tables, each covered with crisp linen, and an open kitchen.

After seating his guests, Gino doesn't just recite the specials--he acts them out. You can order from the menu, but that doesn't mean he will let you have it. Gino has views about everything.

One night he insisted we order the Luciana crocche ($4.25), his homemade croquettes ("I get up at 5 in the morning to make them"), a deep-fried dish of mashed potatoes mixed with mozzarella, salami, beaten eggs and bread crumbs. The crisp little morsels are so confoundingly light that Gino could almost convince you they are diet food.

Bruschetta al pomodoro ($3.95), a dish that is ubiquitous in restaurants but generally disappointing, was another pleasant surprise. Gino's version is served as it should be: perfectly firm bread, a topping of chopped tomatoes tossed with liberal amounts of garlic and fresh basil, the olive oil applied with restraint.

With antipasti like these, you might want to pass on the salads. Though the mixed greens are fresh, they are generally afloat in an acidic vinaigrette.

The pizzas are the thin-crust variety. The familiar Margarita, with fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella, is a perfectly fine option if someone in your party simply must have a pizza. But there are much better choices.

The pastas, for instance: all fresh-made and uniformly terrific. Ravioli San Remo (which are the size of butter plates) are stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese and served in a light tomato, pesto and mushroom sauce.

The pasta special one night was fettuccine con funghi ($12.95), with portabello, porcini and white mushrooms in a brown sauce with a touch of cream. Quite rich--yet, again, surprisingly light.

Three veal dishes are offered, with servings and prices proportionally modest.

For my money, veal should be prepared simply, because the delicate flavor of the meat can easily be overwhelmed, so veal parmigiana has always been a mystery to me. Why bother to order veal if you are going to bury it in tomato sauce, grilled eggplant and cheese? But Gino's vitello Sorrento ($13.95) is a light version of veal parmigiana that does not drown the flavor of the meat. Even better is his vitello Lago--scaloppine sauteed in a wine sauce with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes. Best of all is the classic vitello piccata in a sauce of lemon juice, white wine and capers.

Gino offers a selection of desserts, all made on the premises. The obligatory tiramisu ($3.75) is light, frothy and delicious. Cassata Napolitana ($3.75) is another birthday-party sort of treat: Candied fruit is mixed into each of three ice cream flavors and the thin tricolor layered wedge is topped with roasted chopped almonds.

Gino's Trattoria, which is a mile or so from the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, is the perfect solution to the classic pre-theater meal dilemma: Do you eat a big meal and fall asleep during the second act or eat modestly and get hungry during the second act? Gino solves the problem: Eat any way you want--and then go to the theater or don't. Gino is entertainment enough.

BE THERE

Gino's Trattoria, 720 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, (805) 494-7743. Open for lunch 11:30-2:30 Tue.-Fri.; for dinner 5:30-9:00 p.m. nightly. Lunch for two, $17-$24; dinner for two, $24-$40. When the liquor license arrives, wine and beer will be served. Parking lot in back. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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