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SOCAL STYLE / Restaurants

A Tapestry of Flavors, Simple and Sicilian

September 20, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

I've eaten hundreds of meals since, of course, but I still daydream about the food I had in Sicily last year: boiled octopus that cut like butter; pasta with tuna, wild fennel, currants and pine nuts; the famous fish couscous of Trapani; pastries stuffed with bitter and sweet almonds. Not to mention the delicious fried delicacies sold in the streets around Palermo's La Vucciria market. So when I heard that Celestino Drago was turning the former Jackson's into a restaurant celebrating the cooking of his native Sicily, I was ecstatic. In Los Angeles, where northern Italian restaurants predominate, the vibrant food of the south of Italy has received short shrift.

Sicilian cuisine is a tapestry of flavors woven from each of the cultures that have conquered the island over the centuries--the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans. The enchanting island surrounded by turquoise seas is rich in first-rate ingredients, from bottarga (pressed and salted tuna roe), flavorful swordfish and tuna, and sweet lemons and blood oranges to briny olives, green-gold olive oils and capers from the tiny nearby island of Pantelleria.

Drago, who owns several restaurants, including Drago in Santa Monica, has named his Sicilian venture L'Arancino, or "little orange." He's painted the walls of the West Hollywood location yellow and white, upholstered the banquettes in olive green and decorated the dining room with paintings of oranges. Fresh flowers grace the small bar, and one of those colorful Sicilian wooden carts sits on the counter in front of the open kitchen.

While you're still pondering what to order, a waiter serves complimentary arancini, deep-fried rice balls with a dab of beef rag inside. They're part of Sicily's exuberant tradition of street food. So are panelle, chickpea-flour fritters, which can easily become addictive.

One night, a special appetizer of imported fresh sardines, silvery curls in a sauce of olive oil, garlic and olives drenched in lemon, outshine more studied and intricate dishes. That something so simple can be so spectacularly good demonstrates how dependent Italian cooking is on quality raw materials. Another special, snowy scallops wrapped in prosciutto, plays the shellfish's sweetness against the cured ham's salty tang. Violet-rimmed slices of steamed octopus are dressed simply in olive oil, lemon and celery to make a light, graceful salad. I'm less crazy about the eggplant souffle, a dish borrowed from Drago's menu.

If you like soup, L'Arancino offers an unusual wild fennel and fava bean soup and brusciuvia, a tweedy melange of grains and beans swirled with limpid gold olive oil. We don't get enough of these kinds of wonderfully earthy minestre in L.A.

Baccala (salted and dried cod) is a Sicilian staple, and I appreciate that the restaurant offers not one, but two, salt cod dishes. The better choice is baccala all' Eoliana (Eolian islands style), in which shredded salt cod is mixed with raisins, pine nuts and gold peppers in a sweet and vinegary agrodolce sauce, a sign of the Arabic influence in Sicilian cooking.

The swordfish that stars in Palermo's fish market appears here as smoked swordfish carpaccio, a swirl of pale slices marbled with pink and garnished with fennel and oranges. But the grilled swordfish is a disappointment: Not only is my slice flavorless, but it's also almost thin enough to use for involtini, swordfish rolled around a filling of bread crumbs, cheese and crushed almonds.

Sicily's most renowned pasta dish is pasta con sarde, but L'Arancino's version seems muted. Whether it's the quality of the ingredients or a chef worried that the flavors are too strong for Angeleno palates, I don't know. Spaghetti with bottarga is better than the one I remember at Drago. Rigatoni alla Norma, with eggplant and baked ricotta, is good, too. I also like the fresh crab linguine (for two) in a lightly spicy tomato sauce. Unfortunately, that wonderful timballo, a pasta "drum" filled with layers of macaroni, meat sauce and cheese, is gone from the menu.

It's harder to be enthusiastic about the main courses. The veal chop is no longer topped with a Sicilian pesto of mint and pounded almonds; instead, it comes with a pesto of "mixed herbs." Generally, you get the usual restaurant dishes--lamb chops, this time with balsamic vinegar and fresh mint, a pan-roasted chicken, even a New York steak cut in slices if you want something really boring. And since the fish couscous has been retired, you're left with selecting among the specials, which are often generic L.A. Italian or else the rabbit in agrodolce, which, as it happens, is worth ordering.

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