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Valley Life | restaurant review

Appetizing Bit of Italy

March 10, 2000|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oliva is a crowded little jewel box of a restaurant--Italian village-scene mural, ceiling covered with billowing sailcloth--that always seems to be spilling people and the intoxicating scent of a wood-burning pizza oven into the street.

Meals start with flat breads hot from that aromatic oven, accompanied by tomatoes, garlic and crushed black olives.

There are many appealing dishes on Oliva's menu, but none really tops this complimentary appetizer.

A few come close, though. Antipasto misto di salumi e crostino is a platter of Italian meats sliced razor-thin--flavorful prosciutto, pungent Genoa-style salami and air-dried beef called bresaola--and a hunk of great bread crusted with melted Gorgonzola.

Oliva also makes nice, lightly battered calamari fritti, which has no need of the bland accompanying marinara sauce. Zuppa di lenticchie e spinaci is a hearty lentil soup, laced with spinach and intensely flavored with chicken stock. The crab cakes with risotto are a letdown: too much rice, not enough crab.

The pizza Siciliana sounds appealing--it's a crisp pie with a thin crust, topped with anchovies and pine nuts in addition to the cheese and tomato.

Too bad the chefs get so carried away with the anchovies. The more basic pizza Margherita is excellent, as is pizza prosciutto, a tomato-less pizza topped with sliced ham and fresh rosemary.

*

After pizza, the menu becomes uneven. The Louisiana shrimp ravioli are downright chewy, and the filling is excessively pureed: baby food for boomers.

The cannelloni with veal and mushrooms suffers from a bland sauce.

The best pasta is penne con salsiccia e pinoli, tossed with a mild chicken sausage and pine nuts in a light tomato sauce.

Pass on polleto al mattone, a whole broiled chicken with balsamic rosemary sauce.

The portion is huge, but is no evidence this bird has been cooked under a brick (as the name "mattone" implies), and it's limp and flavorless.

Also pass on sottofiletto alla griglia al pepe: a tough, uninspiring New York steak with a grand name.

Overall, though, Oliva is a welcome addition. Nothing costs more than $12.95, the service is pleasant and there is a small, but fair, wine list filled with good choices for under $20.

What's more, most dishes are available family style, served in large platters for three or more.

See you in line.

BE THERE

Oliva, 4449 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Lunch noon-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. daily. Valet parking. Full bar. All major cards. Dinner for two, $25-$47. Suggested dishes: antipasto misto, $6.75; zuppa di lenticchie, $3.95; pizza Margherita, $6.50; penne con salsiccia, $8.50. Call (818) 789-4490.

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