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Valley Life | restaurant review

Flavorful and Familiar

With tasty antipastos and divine desserts, Benvenuti brings back upscale Italian food to Encino.

July 30, 1999|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When this place was Forte's, it served linguine clams and steak Diane. Later, it was Gypsy Grill, a chic California grillery. Now, as Benvenuti, it's back to its roots as an upscale Italian restaurant, this time with a catchier menu.

It still looks a lot like Gypsy Grill, though. Unless you count the skylight, the cool paint job and an attractive antipasto table smack in the center of the room, that is.

Officially, it's open until the wee hours, but this is early grooving Encino. One recent Sunday evening, the place was jammed at 7 and totally deserted by 9. But the owners are about to bring in live music, so chef Giovanni Bolla may attract a late crowd yet.

Some of Bolla's dishes taste good at any time. Try the antipastos--you get to pick four from a table of about a dozen. The best is peppers in bagna buona, from the chef's native Piedmont, Italy: roasted bell peppers in a bath of garlic, anchovies and olive oil.

You could also choose veal tongue in a light parsley sauce, or even sliced veal in a creamy tuna sauce spiked with capers and lemon juice (vitello tonnato). There's a mayo-rich potato salad (Piemonte salade russe) mixed with peas and carrots. Prosciutto melone is ripe cantaloupe and salty, razor-thin slices of San Daniele ham.

The best salad is artichoke hearts (carciofini) and arugula tossed with feta cheese and a lemony vinaigrette. From the extensive list of pastas, I'd give high marks to fettuccine Bolognese, with its classic ground veal ragu, and ravioli di spinaci, with a chewy spinach filling and a light tomato sauce.

I didn't care for maltagliate tre formaggi, though. The cheese sauce on this pasta (purposely cut in irregular shapes) was watery. Nor did I fancy the polenta with mushrooms. The cornmeal was stiff, and the mushrooms were so lemony, they made my mouth pucker.

Among the main dishes (secondi), the storione del oregon is delicious. It's fresh sturgeon sauteed in a pistachio nut crust. Costolette di agnello (for two) is a full rack of lamb, served with a fresh mint sauce.

Bolla also makes his own desserts. You can get a fine tiramisu, succulent pears poached in red wine, and one real show stopper, gianduja cake. This "cake"--a wedge of semi-sweet chocolate and ground hazelnuts--has the smooth, rich flavor you only get from the best Italian chocolates.

This dessert is one of the boulevard's star attractions. Especially after midnight.

BE THERE

Benvenuti, 16911 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily. Valet parking. Full bar. All major cards. Dinner for two, $32-$55. Suggested dishes: antipasto, $6.75; carciofini e arugula, $8.25; fettuccine Bolognese, $9.75; gianduja cake, $4.50. Call (818) 784-7393.

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