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SOCAL STYLE: Restaurants

Italian Cooking, Family Style

January 18, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Whenever I go to dinner with my friend Brian, I know exactly what's going to happen. We'll order, then he'll grouch all night that my meal is better than his. The guy is a great cook, but he doesn't know how to order in a restaurant. He'll pass up wild mushroom tart or veal daube for anything that sounds exotic, ever hopeful that the chef can pull off some outlandish concoction. He's adventurous, I grant him that, but too often he ends up picking at his food until I take pity and trade plates with him.

Even before I started eating for a living, I somehow knew how to ferret out the best dishes on a menu, a talent that's particularly useful when I travel and have just one chance to get a fix on a restaurant. But this knack can also lead to overly optimistic first impressions.

That was the case when I first went to Il Grano (which means wheat), a new Italian restaurant that's moved into half of what was once Gianfranco's in West Los Angeles. The other half is La Bottega, an Italian deli. Both are run by the younger generation of the Marino family, of the eponymous red sauce Italian restaurant that's been a Melrose Avenue fixture for 14 years. Sal Marino is Il Grano's chef and owner, and his sister Rosanna and brother Mario, who put together the smart Italian wine list, help out in the dining room most nights. Their enthusiasm for Italy and for the best Italian wines is endearing. Rosanna's passionate descriptions of Monte Vesuvio (a chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce and flaming rum dripping down its flanks) or the gianduja (a chocolate and hazelnut truffle cake) may persuade you to order not one, but two sweets to cap off your meal.

The Marinos have given the bare-bones storefront a spare, contemporary look with a small, sleek bar, white-clothed tables and, in one corner, secluded banquettes. The walls are hung with large paintings of mysterious ghostly figures.

Everyone on the staff makes a sincere effort to please, and the Marinos play the Italian card to the hilt, which includes Mario Marino formally kissing a woman's hand in greeting. The family is originally from Naples, where, I imagine, the aristocratic sign of respect went out with the introduction of the motorcar. These days, this antiquated act of gallantry doesn't suit Santa Monica Boule-vard any more than it would Piazza Plebiscito in Naples.

Il Grano's menu has little in common with Marino's dated Italian American fare, except perhaps a penchant for tomato sauce. I'm impressed when the kitchen offers a crostino, or little toast, topped with roasted peppers and a few precious drops of true aceto balsamico, Modena's "black gold," aged so long in a series of small barrels that it's black and thick as crude oil.

In early October, I enjoyed a consomme of seven kinds of tomatoes (though why it was still on the menu in December, long after the height of tomato season, was a puzzle). Il Grano's version of zuppa di vongole, sauteed clams in their shells swimming in a loose tomato sauce, was a lusty version of clam soup. My thick, juicy pork chop, served with good mashed potatoes and cherry peppers that were deceptively hot and vinegary, was delicious. So was the "open ravioli," fresh spinach pasta layered with creamed corn and Maine lobster.

These dishes were so bright and interesting that I was excited about the place and its savvy wine list of little-known or hard-to-find wines from a number of Italy's best small producers. It's a pleasure to encounter a wine list put together by someone who knows the wines and whose prices don't gouge. Il Grano was looking better and better, especially considering it's on a forlorn stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard just west of the San Diego Freeway.

But I don't fare as well when I return to explore the rest of the menu. The wine list is still a pleasure. And a cold antipasti plate from the deli next door, heaped with sliced mortadella, prosciutto, salame, cheese and olives is a bargain at $8 (though what the blackberries and blueberries are doing on the plate, I don't know). Simple grilled squid is fresh and good, seasoned with olive oil and a little lemon. I like a special salad of bitter endive and radicchio dressed in pancetta drippings, but the minestrone laden with vegetables and greens would have been better if it had been made with a more flavorful broth. Beautifully cooked salmon in blood orange sauce, a special, shows what the kitchen can do when not distracted by trendy ideas or time-saving shortcuts.

Seafood risotto, however, tastes more like tomato sauce with rice than a true risotto. That same strong sauce mars a perfectly fine green lasagna laced with meat rag and besciamella. A special pasta of ziti with rabbit is basically just ziti in tomato sauce garnished with rabbit loin. It's too much the assembled restaurant dish. For it to work, the meat needs to be integrated into the sauce.

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