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Tiramisu Honors Its Namesake

The dessert is one of many successes at the Italian eatery.


I have always found the ubiquitous tiramisu sort of annoying. Now along comes Tiramisu, the restaurant, to change my mind. It does many things right--including the best version of tiramisu I've ever tasted.

Maybe you remember this location in Corona del Mar when it was Matteo's and later the short-lived Bella Teresa. If so, you will not recognize it now. New owner Luigi Ferrara has remodeled the premises, to stunning effect.

From the outside, as seen through the glass facade, Tiramisu strikes me as a sort of New Age jewel box. It's an artful arrangement of sponge-painted interiors and faintly glowing lights. Inside, the effect is marginally subtler. The walls are a straw yellow, reminiscent of Tuscan hay. The floor is covered with rustic-looking tiles, the hue of a venerable earthenware crock.

The tables in the main dining area are covered with mustard-yellow tablecloths and glass goblets filled with flowers. Downstairs is a cave-like cocktail bar ideal for a romantic tryst.

Ferrara knows what his customers like. When he ran Luigi's in Huntington Beach, his menu was less extensive, but here, he pulls out all the stops. Order an indulgent pasta like spaghettini alle cozze and you get a colorful hand-painted bowl of al dente pasta chock-full of black mussels from Prince Edward Island. The fish of the day is likely to be a perfectly charred orata (sea bream) from the wood-burning oven.

Even so, there are many missteps. The bread served before your meal is often stale. A salad featuring home-cured salmon with grilled polenta is mealy cubes of the grilled cornmeal and rubbery, flavorless slices of fish. And the pastas, as everywhere in the Southland, tend to be over-sauced, with the sauces excessively rich in oil.

I've actually had my best meal here at lunch, when the kitchen wasn't so busy. We started with a thin-crusted pizza from the wood oven topped with fresh tomato and smoked mozzarella, and it was delicious.

From there, we progressed to insalata Aphrodite, a blend of baby spinach, grilled tiger prawns and crunchy homemade croutons. Finally there was a wonderful linguine pescatore (not on the dinner menu): fish, clams, mussels, shrimps and fresh-tasting noodles, lightly tossed in a marinara sauce redolent of basil.

But at dinner, I've never been quite so lucky. One evening I started with a better-than-average carpaccio di bue composed of pounded filet mignon, shaved Parmesan, arugula and olive oil, but things went downhill from there. My minestrone was watery. And the pasta I ordered, fettuccine alla carbonara--topped with bacon, eggs, Parmesan and parsley--was made properly, without cream, although it was badly overcooked.

At my next dinner, things got better. First there was a fine pizza con salsiccie, a crusty pie topped with big, meaty chunks of sweet Italian sausage and lots of crushed garlic. Then came a Caesar made with crisp romaine, grated cheese and a nicely sharp anchovy-based dressing. The main course was cannelloni di pollo, sheets of fresh pasta rolled around a tasty ground chicken filling.

So it's clear you can eat very well at Tiramisu if you order carefully. One of the very best things on the menu is the simple pane con aglio e parmigiano, a flatbread brushed with garlic, oil and cheese and baked in the wood oven. One top-notch pasta is spaghettini alla Bolognese, made with a classic veal ragu. I find it particularly good when the kitchen goes easy on the sauce.

But I did not care for trota al timo, a boneless trout baked with shrimp in a white wine and lemon reduction. The fish had an overpowering flavor and none of the sweetness you have a right to expect from trout.

Among the many meat dishes on Tiramisu's menu, two of the best are nodino di vitello alla Sassi and bistecca saporita. The first is a classic veal chop grilled over mesquite, enhanced by a light sage butter. The bistecca is a New York steak wrapped with pieces of crisply fried arugula, and it's as tender a piece of meat as I've had in any Italian restaurant of late. As a bonus, both dishes are served with nicely roasted wedges of potato and a pile of snapping-fresh green beans.

Which brings us to the title song, tiramisu. As I'm sure I've made abundantly clear, I'm not a big fan of this dessert, partly because it has become a cliche and partly because it is so rarely done right. But at this restaurant, I'm happy to say, tiramisu rocks.

It's three small rounds of mascarpone-filled lady finger pastries, each flavored differently; it's imaginative, colorful and a total treat. The flavors are chocolate, vanilla and coffee, the mascarpone is soft and creamy, and the pastries are firm and springy.

But if you're not convinced, there are a few nice alternatives. One is cassata Siciliana, a frozen cream confection filled with dried fruits and chopped nuts. Another, unusual for an Italian restaurant, is a souffle (you must give your waiter 30 minutes' notice).

The souffles, especially chocolate or Grand Marnier, are unusually good, correctly eggy and not at all floury. But if they called this place Souffle, who would ever believe it was an Italian restaurant?

Tiramisu is expensive. Appetizers and soups are $4.50 to $7.95. Salads are $5.25 to $13.50. Pastas are $9.95 to $15.50. Main courses are 14.90 to $21.95.


Tiramisu, 2325 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. (949) 673-8444. Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. All major cards.

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