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Simply Sophisticated

May 07, 2000|S. Irene Virbila

one sunday night, when friends and I show up for our reservation at Olio e Limone ("Oil and Lemon") in Santa Barbara, we can't help but notice there is only one other table of diners. I worry. Then a couple arrives. And another. Not exactly a big crowd, but an enthusiastic one. From the banter, and the way they order dishes without consulting the menu, clearly they are regulars. When a restaurant gets that kind of reception, it has arrived.

Olio e Limone blew into Santa Barbara only a few months ago, yet you'd better call some days ahead to get a weekend reservation. This sweet little Italian trattoria has found its niche. Tourists aren't flocking in yet, because they don't know about it. I'm sure the locals want it kept a secret.

The "buona sera" from the lovely woman with the Louise Brooks bob and lacquered red lips is heartfelt and warm. She's Elaine Morello. Her husband, Alberto, is the chef. They met while working at Celestino in Beverly Hills, Celestino Drago's first restaurant, now long gone. Morello went on to become chef at Prego in Irvine. But after eight years there, the couple sold their house and took a chance on Santa Barbara.

Twinkly lights mark the entrance to Olio e Limone. Just inside, shelves display Italian ingredients: bags of pasta, bottles of Sicilian olive oil and a footed wire basket filled with fragrant lemons. Copper utensils and Italian folk ceramics decorate the white walls. Wines are lined up like soldiers on shelves, just the way they would be in most Italian trattorie, but the selection here is more sophisticated. There are just 10 tables, more or less, depending on the night's configuration. When I admire the framed prints of vegetables, Signora Morello says they used to hang on the wall of their kitchen at home.

Despite it being a quiet Sunday, the chef is proposing half a dozen specials, including tortelloni di zucca (pumpkin ravioli), tortelloni with spinach and salted ricotta, spaghetti with bottarga and seared foie gras with aceto balsamico reduction. They are out of the "fish of the day" because it had sold out the busy night before. "My ears are still ringing," she says. "We've got to do something about the acoustics."

It's a nice touch when the first things from the kitchen are a basket of good country bread and a bowl of three kinds of olives marinated in herbs and bay laurel. Morello keeps the menu fairly small and doesn't overextend himself. This is the kind of cooking he knows. And like his mentor, Celestino, Morello mixes a few Sicilian dishes with the generic Italian fare that Californians never tire of eating. The waiters are Italian, which gives the place an even more authentic Italian feel, but these guys are more diplomatic than the average Roman waiter as they listen patiently to guests trying out their Italian.

Among the appetizers, I like the warm seafood salad--an oval platter of pale squid, bay scallops and small steamed clams in the shell with sliced celery and cornichons to give it a note of crunch. Squeeze some lemon over it, and you're in business. It's a good dish to share, too. There's also a salad with a roasted quail splayed on top of the greens. Morello's version of the ubiquitous salad of pear, blue cheese and walnuts is beautiful, a "carpaccio" of pear, cut lengthwise in paper-thin slices so that it resembles an illustration from a botanical textbook. Fanned out on the plate, the pear is covered with crumbled Gorgonzola dolce, fresh walnuts and a gracefully balanced dressing.

Pastas are generally good, too. That spaghetti with bottarga--the pressed-dried tuna roe from Sicily that tastes as salty and minerally as the sea--is excellent. Grated over the pasta, the bottarga is tossed with garlic, parsley, bread crumbs and fruity Sicilian olive oil. From Sardinia comes

mallureddus, a dense, shell-shaped pasta in a rustic sauce of sausage and tomato, especially tomato. Unfortunately, Morello has cooked in America long enough that his pastas tend to be rather generously sauced, the way Americans like it. His fettuccine with asparagus and spugnole--crinkly morel mushrooms--is delicious, a perfect late-spring pasta marred only by a sauce that's too soupy. It tastes best when there's just enough sauce to cloak each strand of pasta. Another standout is pappardelle with a rag of quail, sausage and mushrooms. The noodles, 11/2 inches wide, are set on the plate with careless abandon: I love the drape and the feel of this fresh pasta. One night's special ravioli has a finely nuanced duck forcemeat filling. It would be even better, though, if the pasta dough were more supple.

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