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Paradiso Lost : Cafe misses a shot to deliver really distinctive elements of Piedmontese cuisine.

July 02, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Piedmont region of Italy is rugged and remote, but its cuisine enjoys considerable culinary resources, including wild game, the local (and fabulously expensive) white truffle and quite a few of Europe's greatest vineyards.

Here in O.C. we have a restaurant with Piedmontese roots, Caffe Piemonte, which recently moved from Orange to handsome new quarters in Tustin. The new place is brighter, more modern and, frankly, not claustrophobic like the old one.

It also has a distinctly European ambience, making it, all things considered, one of our most pleasant new dining spots. The dining room, adorned with trellises of flowers, has an enjoyable view of chef Luigi Ravetto's open kitchen.

Ravetto's brother, Giovanni, meanwhile, is the host. He's a charming fellow who speaks to customers in lilting English liberally sprinkled with Italian words and phrases, and who can resist that?

I like many of the dishes, as do the restaurant's loyal fans, whose votes won the original location a lofty 27 out of 30 food rating in a recent Zagat Guide. But if you're looking for the really distinctive elements of Piedmontese cuisine, you're in for a letdown. Yes, you can get polenta, and the wine list does contain a few Barolos and Barbarescos, but you certainly won't find white truffles in season or wild-game dishes.

Pasta generally comes inundated with rich, thick sauces, a far cry from their more restrained counterparts in Italy. The waiters bring along cheese graters and hunks of fresh Parmesan when they serve the colorful dinner salads, something that usually makes Italians shake their heads in disbelief.

Still, big-time meat eaters will want to count their lucky stars. Both the veal Milanese and the osso buco are gargantuan servings by comparison with what you'd get in Italy.

*

Luigi Ravetto explained by phone why the pastas are smothered in sauce and the meat portions are so huge. "If I gave my customers less sauce or smaller portions," he said, "they would feel cheated." So that's us in O.C., I guess--not ready for real Piedmontese food.

No one is going to call the antipasti insubstantial. Both the veal and the tuna carpaccio are sliced thick, generously covered with shaved Parmesan and positively showered with capers, and both have clear, strong flavors. Polenta alla Piemontese is a creamy, impossibly rich version of this classic farmhouse dish. The cornmeal is baked under a blanket of Fontina cheese sauce, which turns it into a true tummy stuffer.

The imaginative gamberetti all' agrodolce is a sweet-and-sour shrimp creation that makes judicious use of balsamic vinegar. The shrimp are sauteed with olive oil, vinegar, pistachios and arugula and brought out piping hot. The sugar in the balsamic vinegar caramelizes ever so slightly on the shrimp, emphasizing their faint sweetness.

The restaurant makes a fairly classic stracciatella alla Romana of chicken broth laced with parsley, spinach and a beaten egg. It also serves a huge bowl of tortellini in brodo, where the chicken broth is stocked with spinach, tiny doughnut-shaped stuffed pastas and big hunks of chicken breast. Both soups are tasty, if a bit bland.

The best pastas are homemade ravioli. Ravioli alle erbette is probably the restaurant's best dish. It's a big platter of nicely chewy ravioli with a light, buttery filling of Swiss chard, spinach and garlic. The ravioli are topped with deep-fried sage leaves, a nice effect, though it takes getting used to.

Ravioli al vitello are stuffed with minced veal and prosciutto; for my money, they're better without the cream sauce. The lobster ravioli are a good bet too.

The best of the remaining pastas are based on tagliolini, a long, thin spaghetti-like noodle that's popular in Piedmont. Tagliolini alla Bolognese comes in a nice veal ragu--so much of it that I barely got the sense I was eating noodles. Tagliolini paradiso is another nice idea; the noodles are served with asparagus, a lot of saffron cream sauce and the inevitable sun-dried tomatoes.

I can't complain about my richly sauced, marrow-filled osso buco, except that the meat could have been a touch more tender. The veal Milanese was pretty good too. The tender pounded veal had a delicate breading, though it could have been slightly more crisp.

Desserts are uniformly fine, with one or two standouts. An impeccable interpretation of the eclair-like pastries called bigne is filled with a light custard and topped with chocolate sauce. Another good one is the very dense, fudgy flourless chocolate cake called Valentino.

You should definitely not miss the kitchen's one truly Piedmontese touch, panna cotta (literally "baked cream"). This cool dessert looks like a flan, but it is pure white because it doesn't contain any eggs. Caffe Piemonte's faultless version is a quivering mass of cream thickened with gelatin under a drizzle of perfect caramel sauce.

Sigh. It's a dessert good enough to give you an idea of what might have been. Even without getting into the whole issue of white truffles.

Caffe Piemonte is expensive. Antipasti are $10 to $14. Pastas are $12 to $19. Meat dishes are $18 to $26.

BE THERE

Caffe Piemonte, 498 E. 1st St., Tustin. (714) 544-8072. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday- Friday, 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. All major cards.

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