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Still Alive and, Well, ...

May 04, 1997|S. Irene Virbila

Italian restaurants come and go in Los Angeles faster than you can say arrivederci. Yet whenever I drive past Locanda Veneta, the front of the 9-year-old trattoria is jammed with cars. Even on weeknights, unless you call well ahead, it's next to impossible to get in at prime time.

When it opened in 1988, Locanda Veneta was the first of a new breed of Italian restaurants here: unabashedly casual, serving the simple cooking that makes trattorias in the country--and the city--so appealing in Italy. In fact, once Locanda Veneta caught on, it was so notoriously difficult to get a reservation--especially for the coveted banquettes or window tables--that Antonio Tommasi and partner Jean-Louis De Mori had to open Ca' Brea on La Brea Avenue to handle the overflow. In 1994, they added Il Moro in West Los Angeles and Ca' del Sole in North Hollywood. And, in 1995, they opened Allegria in Malibu.

But what started as an interesting concept, great trattoria cooking with a Venetian bent, has turned all too predictable. Locanda Veneta's menu today reads and tastes as generic as any you'd find elsewhere in the country. Fortunately for the owners, plenty of people don't seem to care or notice.

The attraction, I guess, is the restaurant's coziness. With banquettes along shadowed walls, tables close together down the middle of the room and canvas lashed overhead, the intimate setting has a raffish appeal. Smoky mirrors and a bas-relief of a masked gold sun make it look very much like something you'd find on one of the back streets of Venice. Except, that is, for the California-style open kitchen and big bouquet of sunflowers on the counter.

The safest way to start here is with a salad, either radicchio in a creamy Parmesan dressing or the refreshing Belgian endive with oranges and red onions in a balsamic vinaigrette. Eggplant rolled up with mozzarella and buried in a thick, pasty tomato sauce tastes like a dish from a red-checkered-tablecloth restaurant in Brooklyn. Steamed clams have an off-putting metallic taste. And rubbery mozzarella and prosciutto are garnished with unripe, virtually flavorless Roma tomatoes.

The risotto is still the best thing on the menu. Right now, it's made with porcini mushrooms and a confetti of braised diced vegetables. It's perfectly cooked, halfway between the dry, compact risotto favored in Milan and the Veneto's more liquid all'onda style. Thankfully, too, someone in the kitchen knows enough to use white truffle oil with restraint.

Splendid risotto, however, makes it all the more puzzling why the pastas are so badly cooked. Locanda Veneta's chefs seem to have lost sight of the idea of al dente. Dry pasta has a bit more tooth than fresh noodles, which is why fusilli sauced with a nice ragu of diced veal and fresh basil fares better than the gummy angel hair pasta or the sorry linguine with clams and lobster tails. Penne al pomodoro would be all right, too, if the pasta weren't inundated with the dull tomato sauce. You can't count on the gnocchi either. Once touted for their lightness, these are now heavy as gum erasers, fat potato and flour plugs smothered in a tomato and mushroom sauce.

When it comes to main courses, the best choice is the nicely grilled whole boneless chicken. Roast rack of lamb coated in mustard would be passable if someone hadn't decided to top it with goat cheese. You can order veal several ways, none of which I can recommend--especially not the slippery, tasteless veal scaloppine served with mushy artichokes. Grilled giant prawns sound fabulous but on two occasions were soapy-tasting--inedible, actually--with a horrible mealy texture.

The restaurant serves a few very good wines, such as the glorious 1993 Tignanello ($70) or the 1993 Gaja Barbaresco ($128). But these expensive bottles deserve better than the narrow, clunky wineglasses provided here. If you want to fully appreciate the nuances in these distinguished wines, you'll have to either bring your own glasses or miss out.

Order the crema di vaniglia, silky vanilla custard covered with a sticky caramel sauce, for dessert. I'm not saying it makes up for paying this kind of money for such disappointing Italian food, but it certainly helps.



CUISINE: Italian. AMBIENCE: Cozy trattoria with Venetian touches. BEST DISHES: radicchio salad, fusilli with veal and basil rag, risotto with porcini, crema di vaniglia. WINE PICKS: 1992 Pio Cesare Dolcetto d'Alba. FACTS: 8638 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (310) 274-1893. Closed Sunday and at lunch Saturday. Dinner for two, food only, $42 to $70. Corkage $15. Valet parking.

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