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Slice of Beach Life

Napa Valley Pizza and Pasta is hidden away on the coast, but its food stands out.


SUNSET BEACH — Napa Valley Pizza and Pasta Co., though I can see no connection to Napa Valley, is an unexpected little discovery--with the emphasis on "unexpected."

It's in a matchbox-size building (the display kitchen--a range and a pizza oven--takes up close to half the usable space) on a stretch of PCH full of casual restaurants. You might drive by it dozens of times without thinking to check it out.

The interior is disarmingly simple. The walls, painted a relaxing Tuscan rust, are bare except for one large oil painting. The dining area consists of wooden tables shoved against the walls wherever there's a little room. Tables are set with paper napkins and silverware, plus 2-liter bottles of Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon. (Hey, Mondavi's winery is in Napa Valley. Maybe this is the connection.)

The wine is on the honor system: When you pour a glass, you move a glass bead from one little container to another, and the waitress counts them up at the end of the meal.

Appetizers, soups and salads are all first-rate, and many have original twists.

Take wings of fire, a version of Buffalo chicken wings. In Buffalo, N.Y., wings are plunged from a deep fryer directly into a sauce-filled bag and shaken violently so that they absorb sauce quickly without losing their crunch. Here, the wings are coated in a zesty cayenne marinade and slowly pan-fried, which somehow achieves a similar result.

The Chesapeake crab cakes are crunchy discs of pure Maryland crab meat, redolent of Old Bay seasoning, lightly breaded in cracker crumbs. They come with a hot red cocktail sauce. A delicious minestrone is composed of cabbage, potatoes and white beans, scented with onion and garlic; it's like something you might find on the Italian Riviera. And believe it or not, there are pot stickers--crisp Chinese fried dumplings filled with minced pork and cabbage. (How'd those get in here?)

The house Greek salad is chopped Roma tomatoes, crumbled feta cheese and an olive oil dressing powerfully flavored with crushed garlic. There is nothing subtle about the Caesar salad either. It's basically a creamy Caesar, but ask for anchovies and the salad is embellished with five or six whole fillets.

The potato salad, by contrast, is pleasantly tame. It's Washington red potatoes dressed up with mayo, red onion, hard-boiled eggs and chopped celery.

The next logical step is pizza. The pies, with medium-thick crusts, can be ordered in either 8- or 16-inch sizes. (A 16-inch pizza is big enough to serve at least four people as a main course.)

I first came here expecting the type of wood-oven pizzas that have been the rage in Napa County for some time and was let down to discover that the restaurant doesn't use a wood-burning oven. But they're the best pizzas between the Seal and Huntington Beach piers. The dough is yeasty; the sauces are intense, and the toppings are good-quality, intelligently proportioned.

The Napa Valley pizza is topped with marinated tomatoes, julienned capocollo sausage, garlic, oregano and two cheeses, Romano and mozzarella. The usually pungent four-cheese pizza has a smooth edge here because it blends Danish havarti with mozzarella, provolone and Romano.

Mixed-grill vegetarian has a delicately balanced topping of zucchini, grilled onions, red and green bell peppers and thinly sliced eggplant. Even teriyaki chicken pizza, the pizza menu's one departure from the Mediterranean, is very good. The teriyaki sauce is properly restrained, not as sweet as most and with the flavors of ginger, sesame and roasted garlic in harmony.

The menu also lists pastas and sandwiches. The sandwiches come on French (not Italian) bread or, more precisely, on individual mini-baguettes. Two are exceptional. One is the eggplant sandwich: thin slices of lightly breaded eggplant, roasted red peppers, grilled onions, roasted garlic, olive oil, Romano cheese and a light tomato basil sauce. The other is a sub (or grinder, as the menu calls it) full of Italian cold cuts--including capocollo, salami and prosciutto--with all the trimmings.

The pasta menu is simple. In the pasta-with-sauce category, there's only the small tubular pasta called penne, available with a variety of toppings. Broccoli and sun-dried tomato penne is healthful and plain, with a sprinkle of fresh thyme and just enough olive oil to moisten the vegetables. Penne montelino uses the same ingredients as the teriyaki chicken pizza, and they prove to be equally good with pasta.

Lastly there are baked pastas such as manicotti, stuffed shells and lasagna (all with ricotta cheese, sausage and ground meat fillings) and one or two unusual homemade raviolis. Rosemary chicken with smoked provolone ravioli is a whole egg pasta with a fluffy, nutty filling that is more cheese than chicken. Sun-dried tomato ravioli is a tomato red noodle with a salty filling.

Owner Dominic Picarelli plans to open a second Napa Valley Pizza and Pasta Co. in Costa Mesa this month. Maybe he'll even open one in Napa Valley someday.

Napa Valley Pizza and Pasta Co. is inexpensive: appetizers, soups and salads, $2.95-$5.95; sandwiches, $4.50-$4.95; pizzas, $6.95-$14.95; pastas, $4.95-$6.50.


* Napa Valley Pizza and Pasta Co., 16711 Pacific Coast Highway, Sunset Beach. (562) 592-4459. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sun.-Thur., 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat. MasterCard and Visa.

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