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VALLEY LIFE | Restaurant Review

Speaking Linguine

Il Forno, with branches from Tokyo to Calabasas, spreads its own interpretations of Italian.

May 21, 1999|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If any cuisine has legs as the century ends, it's rustic Italian. The international pizzeria-trattoria chain Il Forno has branches as far away as Tokyo, and it has just opened one deep in the heart of Calabasas.

Physically, it's cheerful and spacious, rather than warm and rustic. You walk in past a takeout and pastry counter with killer desserts on display. The tables are positioned intelligently, so you never feel crowded.

The problem here is the service. The big, encyclopedic menu is all in Italian, which seems to be difficult for the Valley girls and boys who wait on you. Three times I have gotten some other table's order. You'd almost be better off ordering through the Spanish-speaking busboys, who have the Italian dish names down pat.

I like to begin a meal here with one of the thin-crust pizzas from the wood-burning oven, because they're some of the best in the Southland. Pizza alla Roise is topped with fresh tomatoes, arugula, a full-flavored prosciutto and just enough goat cheese for pungency. The wonderful pizza Il Forno is a cheeseless wonder: a cracker-thin crust topped with shiitake mushrooms, roasted garlic, basil, oregano and a subtly sweet marinara sauce.

The pastas are less consistent. A classic rigatoni Bolognese combines the pasta with a mildly acidic meat sauce. Risotto alla Vastese is a veritable mountain of Arborio rice laced with mushrooms and white truffle oil--a nice idea marred by a gummy texture.

One of the menu stars is spaghetti vecchio style, in a tomato sauce enriched with eggplant, mushrooms, basil and radicchio. Even better is tagliatelle tre terre, a dish that goes carbonara one better. The perfectly cooked thin noodles come in a cream sauce loaded with bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms and grilled radicchio.

Delicious entrees come from that wood oven, such as stuffed tortellini and pollo alla Toscana, chicken baked with mushrooms and leeks. Grilled dishes include a tender, beautifully marbled filet mignon (tagliata di manzo), thinly sliced and served with baby mixed greens, and trancio di salmone, a nice piece of grilled Norwegian salmon with cherry tomatoes, green onions and capers.

For dessert, don't miss the terrific, crunchy, lemon-hazelnut meringue torte or the Tuscanella, a rich, custardy eclair. Tokyo and Calabasas have one thing in common now, this we know.

BE THERE

Il Forno, 22239 Mulholland Highway, Calabasas. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. daily. Parking in lot. Beer and wine only. All major cards. Dinner for two, $26-$39. Suggested dishes: pizza Il Forno, $7.95-$9.95; tagliatelle tre terre, $9.95; pollo alla Toscana, $14.95; trancio di salmone, $16.95. Call (818) 222-6699.

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