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EATS: in and around the Valley | RESTAURANT REVIEW

A Rising Star

Prezzo's bold decor, innovative dishes show potential, despite a few rough spots.

April 23, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Prezzo has just about everything going for it: killer design, hot young clientele, accomplished new chef. But as in professional sports, sometimes it's intangibles that separate the best from the very good. For all its advantages, Prezzo never quite manages to hit one out of the park--until dessert.

Still, it is one of the best-looking places to eat on Ventura Boulevard. I dined here with a set designer from the Mark Taper, and she pronounced the interior, ahem, "bold and muscular."

You enter through a snazzy patio separated from the sidewalk by a glass partition. (Yep, it's a smoking-permitted patio.) In the aforementioned bold, muscular dining room, lime-green walls are offset by blue neon light fixtures and a wood-beamed ceiling. You sit in sweeping, semi-circular booths with handsome fabric upholstery.

When you're seated, you get a basket of warm breads and a dish of oily, garlicky pesto from one of the waitresses, who look rather Bohemian in their uniform of black shorts and black T-shirts. And if it's a Monday, you'll get a menu heralding one of the best deals in the Valley: Everything on the dinner menu is half price, a flat-out steal.

Prezzo is northern Italian in spirit, but Filipino-American chef Andre Guerrero has broadened things with a few of his own creations. The dishes include some of Tuscan inspiration, such as stone-pressed chicken breast, but others, such as Shanghai shrimp toasts, reflect the Southland's unquenchable thirst for all things Tuscan and Pacific Rim.

But I must caution that the kitchen can be grindingly slow, service is sometimes dilatory in the extreme and a few dishes can stumble. What you can count on, in the main, is good food. My guests thought the shrimp toasts a bit oily, but I loved the topping of shrimp paste mixed with white and black sesame and the delicious ginger plum dipping sauce. If you like your shrimp whole, rather than ground, there is a fine appetizer of mesquite-grilled shrimp wrapped in pancetta, served on a bed of julienned vegetables.

The arugula salad with a warm goat cheese crouton is saved from cliche status by a tart balsamic vinaigrette and a sprinkling of barbecued pecans. The best of the thin-crusted wood-fired pizzas is probably plain old pepperoni, unless it's the spicy shrimp pizza with caramelized onions, garlic and a handful of basil.

Prezzo serves about a dozen al dente pastas and a few risottos. Spaghetti with Manila clams, for instance: mixed with fresh clams in a subtle garlic and white wine sauce. The lobster ravioli lacks the intensely briny quality of fresh lobster, but the ravioli are properly chewy, and the topping of roasted corn, fried leeks and coral-colored lobster sauce is fun to eat. I like the salty earthiness of Guerrero's penne dressed with spinach, sun-dried tomato, Greek olives and garlic. The saffron risotto with shrimp, clams, peas and roasted peppers, alas, is gummy.

Most of the mesquite-grilled entrees come with creamy mashed potatoes and spinach. The star of the lineup is stone-pressed chicken breast, crisp on the surface and juicy in the center. A nice piece of grilled salmon comes with lobster sauce and a fragrant risotto flavored with basil oil, leeks and vegetables. The best steak is the New York cut, served with a tumbleweed of fried onion threads and a mushroom risotto.

As I've noted, Guerrero has a way with desserts. He makes a wonderful warm blueberry almond tart loaded with blueberries in a marzipan pastry crust, a mango and berry crisp served warm and bubbly with vanilla bean ice cream, and a rich flour-less chocolate ganache cake with a sweet raspberry coulis. Even his tiramisu is exceptional.

Hey, Prezzo, just work on that swing and you'll be ready for the majors.

BE THERE

Prezzo, 13625 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Dinner 5 p.m.-1 a.m. nightly. Full bar, valet parking. All major cards. Suggested dishes: mesquite grilled shrimp, $8.95; pepperoni pizza, $8.95; spaghetti with Manila clams, $11.95; stone-pressed chicken breast, $11.95; desserts, $5.95.

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