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| SETTINGS: Stops on a Tasting Tour of Orange County

Dinner to Die for Is Worth the Wait

'Around 30 minutes--maybe longer,' she said. That usually means goodbye, but the food at Osteria Dabbasso rewards the patient.

Osteria Dabbasso, 222 Forest St., Laguna Beach, (949)-0495


Patience is not my strong suit. When told there will be "a bit of a wait" at a restaurant, I have a tendency to sigh like a child who's been instructed to sit quietly in his seat because the movie won't start for another 20 minutes.

So when the receptionist at Osteria Dabbasso, who, with her kinky black hair and twinkly blue eyes reminds me of Julianna Margulies, smiles and says the wait is "around 30 minutes--maybe longer," I'm inclined to say forget it and walk up the street to the little Thai place we passed earlier that was just jammed with empty tables. Or head for Las Brisas, which is large enough that there's never more than a five-minute wait. But my daughter Paige gives me a stern look that says, "Just be patient."

Paige, you see, has recently discovered bruschetta. When I offered to let her pick where we would eat tonight, she said, "Anywhere is fine with me. As long as they have bruschetta." That sort of leaves out Mexican and Thai food, doesn't it?

I give the receptionist, who is standing at a lectern on the sidewalk, our name--or, rather, Paige's name, since I have this ridiculous notion that hostesses are more likely to remember a 6-foot-3 middle-aged man if he says his name is Paige--and tell her we'll just hang out nearby.

Actually, on this particular evening, I don't mind. It helps that we don't have to wait inside the restaurant, where the tables are as tightfitting as Brittney Spears' tube tops. On the sidewalk next to the Wyland Gallery with its leaping dolphin sculptures grinning at us through the plate-glass window, there are lots of diversions: the violinist swaying like a lily as he cajoles his instrument into a slightly balky rendition of the theme song from Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet"; a large bear of a man seated on the sidewalk on the opposite corner noodling Irish tunes on a fife; and Jordan.

Jordan is a Puckish toddler of no more than 2 who likes to steal the Italian mints from the dish by the door and stumble up and down the stairs that lead to the below-street-level restaurant while playing peek-a-boo with diners on the patio. He is making the hostess nervous. She leads four women down the stairs, and as she passes Jordan, who is hopping like a frog from one step to the next, she crosses herself as if she's just passed the scene of a terrible accident on the highway.

"Is that little boy with anybody?" one of the women asks.

The raven-haired waitress shrugs and puffs a little air out of her perfectly lipsticked mouth. "He's a floater," she says. She bends in half to face the little boy and whispers, "Jordan, go find your mommy." Jordan hops, hops, hops down the rest of the stairs.

By the time we are seated, it is after 9, and Paige is starving. Before our waitress, Zoe, can even tell us about the specials, I order the bruschetta for Paige and a glass of pinot grigio for me, just to settle us down. The restaurant is loud and frantic in that way that a good restaurant can be, and Zoe is so busy that without looking at Paige she asks her if she would like a glass of wine as well.

Paige says, "Sure."

"Probably not a good idea for a 14-year-old," I tell Zoe, who gives a quick look at Paige and grimaces.

"I thought she was a little young," she says and hurries away.

The menu is daunting. There are a dozen antipasti, a page of pizzas and so many pasta dishes that my eyes glaze over them as if I were reading escrow papers.

"What's gnocchi?" Paige asks.

"Sort of a potato dumpling. I don't think you'd like it."

She considers the ravioli stuffed with asparagus and the rigatoni with eggplant before settling on pasticcio di lasagna. I go for the grilled rack of lamb--costolette d'Agnello al vino Ross--which, Zoe assures me, is to die for. Paige, who worries about my cholesterol intake, is disturbed by this pronouncement.

"I don't think she meant it literally," I tell her. Paige sips her diet drink. "It's still not a good thing to say in a restaurant."

The bruschetta is quirky. Good, but quirky. Along with one round of toasted focaccia topped with tomatoes and basil and garlic come three little sisters of a decidedly untraditional nature. One of pesto, one of olive paste and the last slathered in sauteed mushrooms. Paige adores the tomato and pesto bruschetta but is less enthusiastic about olives and mushrooms--two of her least favorite ingredients.

I tell her we'll send it back. "Don't, Dad," she says. "You'll embarrass me." I tell her it will be fine. And in fact, Zoe doesn't mind at all. No problem, she says, and a few minutes later, two more little toasts--with the tomatoes and pesto--appear.

"This reminds me of a little neighborhood restaurant in New York," Paige says, which surprises me a bit because Paige has never been to New York.

"How would you know?" I ask her.

"Exactly," she says, and I realize I have been tricked.

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