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New World Italian

Bertolini's Authentic Trattoria menu is small and self-assured.

January 15, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — When you've got a winning formula, why monkey with it? So the new Bertolini's Authentic Trattoria in the Metro Pointe shopping center--a sleek, beautifully designed place that's really too elegant to be a trattoria--is a lot like the original Bertolini's at Irvine Spectrum.

Except that this one now faces the specter of direct competition. When it opened, the place was roaring with customers, but then a Chicago import named Maggiano's became the new Italian kid on the block. Ever since, Bertolini's has been less crowded. In fact, it's a breeze to get a table.

This place, a free-standing building on Metro Pointe's northern edge, is a remarkably handsome restaurant, albeit hard to spot from the mall's Bear Street main entrance.

Once you come face to face with Bertolini's, you'll never forget it. The facade is framed by six enormous, flawless stone pillars, which give the impression you're entering a recently refurbished Roman temple. But we are far from classical antiquity, as is shown by the restaurant's art glass and mahogany front doors, with their wavy brass handles--not to mention the nearby Edwards Stadium 12 Cinemas.

Inside, you find dark wood, festive murals of Venice and a sky-blue trompe-l'oeil ceiling. The booths are strikingly upholstered in a pattern of black and gold diamonds, and there's a fully open kitchen.

The menu is small and self-assured. I call the concept "millennium northern Italian chic": creative antipasti, rustic soups, dependable pizzas, pastas (made on premises), a few simple entrees and the inevitable risotto of the day. The waiters, a hustling, enthusiastic crew, look sporty in an oddly British way with their bright tartan vests.

A meal starts with a warm basket of complimentary ciabatta bread. Hard as it may be to do, I'd ignore the bread in favor of the terrific pizzetta Bertolini; the catch is that you have to pay for it. The rosemary-flavored pizza bread crusted with Parmesan and garlic is baked to order in the oak-burning pizza oven.

Some quite good pizzas come from the same oven. The best is the thin-crusted pizza patate arrostite, topped with roasted potatoes, rosemary and Gorgonzola. Pizza Margherita, with the familiar topping of plum tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, has a slightly thicker crust and isn't as delicious. The only one not to order is pizza bianca, topped with spinach, garlic and too much bechamel sauce. It's really messy and cloys after one or two bites.

Most of the appetizers are done well. Properly crunchy calamari fritti are served with a spicy tomato-caper dipping sauce. Prosciutto e mozzarella affumicata is simply strips of smoked mozzarella wrapped with good prosciutto. They come with field greens in vinaigrette and toast with fig jam, an appealingly eccentric idea.

The best soup is pasta e fagioli, a thick, hearty bean soup strewn with an intelligent amount of tubetti pasta. I don't much care for the zuppa di pomodori e pane, a tomato and bread soup flavored with loose chunks of Italian sausage. It's like a watery minestrone with a couple of big hunks of waterlogged bread stuck to the bottom of the bowl.

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The pastas are made on premises and prepared nicely al dente. To me, the best is rigatoni ai telefono con salsiccia, a tube pasta topped with a generously meaty sausage ragu. Fazzoletta con funghi is a handkerchief of fresh pasta with a ricotta and spinach filling, all in a rather neutral mushroom sauce.

For lasagna verde Bolognese, the broad green noodles are layered with deliciously heavy, devilishly rich meat and bechamel sauces. I like the thick homemade fettuccine al pesto, but I'd like it even more if the toasted pine nuts were ground into the sauce, not dumped onto the noodles in a pile.

Among the entrees (secondi), I was disappointed by supremo di pollo alla Romana, which the menu describes as Romano-cheese-crusted chicken with Gorgonzola sauce. I'd just call it a greasy deep-fried cutlet. Far better is petto di pollo alla griglia, a classic Tuscan grilled chicken breast served with polenta and roasted garlic. I also like salsiccia con polenta, a sloppy, tasty plate of grilled sweet sausage and polenta with stewed peppers, onions and tomatoes.

Sweets (dolci) are a big draw at Bertolini's. The gelati, made on premises, are the best Italian ice creams I've had in a dog's age--sweet, creamy, dense and intensely flavored. To mention just a few: baccio (chocolate hazelnut), stracciatella (chocolate chip), tiramisu (which you know), Italian vanilla and perhaps the best pistachio ice cream I've ever tasted.

One way to sample your gelati is coppa mista, three flavors of your choice layered into a giant glass dish, exactly the way it is done in Italy. Another option is coppa cioccolato, three different chocolate gelati with chocolate sauce, brandied cherries and whipped cream.

I'd hold out for banana Veneziana. This take on the banana split has lots of sliced bananas, strawberries, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry gelati, caramel and chocolate sauces and a dollop of whipped cream on top. As I said before, some formulas you just don't monkey around with.

Bertolini's Authentic Trattoria is moderately priced. Antipasti are $3.95 to $6.95. Pizzas are $8.95. Pastas are $8.95 to $14.95. Secondi are $11.95 to $16.25. Dolci are $3.95 to $5.25.

BE THERE

* Bertolini's Authentic Trattoria, 901 S. Coast Drive, Costa Mesa. (714) 424-9179. 11 a.m-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. All major cards.

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