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RESTAURANTS

Ago Trip

February 18, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA

The line of flashy cars turns off Melrose Avenue into the parking lot and purrs up to the valet station, where men in basic black leather and women in wispy dresses or tight-fitting sweaters step out into the light. It's a typical night at Ago, the West Hollywood Italian. A seriously muscled guy out front wearing an earpiece must be either a bodyguard or a bookie. A few glum souls slump on a bench outside the entrance.

Inside, the maitre d's work the phones, press the flesh and fend off queries from the impatient in a space the size of a hall closet and with the clamor of the high-energy bar directly behind. A well-padded gentleman bluffs his way in, whispering conspiratorially in Italian to the host, though it doesn't get him a table any faster.

Actually, given the crush at the door, tables are doled out pretty efficiently, because I've never had to wait more than 15 minutes for my (reserved) table. The other side of the equation is that waiters are brutally efficient at turning the tables, and the kitchen is paced to match. Order a starter of risotto, for example, and it will arrive in 10 minutes, not the 20 it usually takes to cook. And if you don't hurry, the main courses are likely to arrive before you finish your primi.

Since it opened in 1997, Ago has been more notable for the scene than for its food. When I learned that chef/owner Agostino Sciandri was back, I decided to check it out again. Recently, the Italian-born chef, who goes by Ago for short, sold his interest in Toscana in Brentwood and stepped back from full-time involvement with the Rostis chain of Tuscan takeout restaurants to concentrate on his namesake restaurant.

Sciandri is there most nights now. Look for him center stage--the sturdy, grizzled figure in the Fair Isle sweater vest monitoring the youngsters working the line. A long table overflowing with flowers and the night's array of desserts half-screens the open kitchen from view. From my table that first night, I see him turn back some dishes. OK now, he's really getting serious.

The heart of this gleaming loft-like space is its wood-burning pizza oven. In its glow, cooks are frantically garnishing pizza dough and pulling charred bisteccas from the embers. Past that is the two-level dining room. The farther back your table, it seems, the higher your rating on the A-list. Waiters are more effusive, singing out "hello, goodbye, ciao, ciao" and exchanging double kisses with the regulars. It's that irresistible Italian schmaltz, and it plays very well in this old-school restaurant.

The minute guests are seated, a runner arrives with a bottle of water in each hand. Still or sparkling? If asked while they're still getting their bearings, most diners will choose one or the other, forgetting they have the option of tap water or none at all. Either way, the restaurant gets to add at least $6 to the bill. Ago's waiters seem to evaluate a new table quickly, culling the ordinary folk from the potential big spenders on whom to lavish attention.

Everybody gets complimentary shards of flatbread, drizzled with olive oil, from the pizza oven. From this point on, ordering becomes critical. I'll tell you what to order so that you leave thinking Ago is worth the price for an entertaining scene. Deviate from my suggestions at your own risk.

As a first course, fresh, creamy burrata (a richer relative of mozzarella) and a heap of emerald green beans with black pepper ground over it. Leave the garnish of bland out-of-season tomatoes. Next, get either the bistecca or the 18-ounce costata di manzo (rib-eye) charred rare. Both are grilled to perfection and slightly smoky from the wood fire. The beef is moderately flavorful and juicy. And the accompanying thick-cut roast potatoes have an irresistible golden crunch. The sauteed spinach is so good I could eat hanks of it. For dessert, have the ricotta cheesecake. Start to finish, this meal will satisfy all those meat-and-potato types: It's the Italian restaurant as chophouse.

Veer from the above menu, especially if you know anything about Italian food, and you'll go away thinking this place is ridiculous. What can you say about pizza topped with tapenade and pale red, cottony tomatoes? This is a pizza that demands a good tomato. It's impossible to conjure up the taste of Italy with this kind of product. Another pizza is topped with a blizzard of arugula leaves, but the cheese underneath has gone rubbery and cold.

Other antipasti include beans with shrimp, which are simply awful--just plain boiled beans and some tired, flavorless shrimp. Zuppa di golfo (gulf soup) isn't much better. The seafood is mostly calamari rings with a couple of shrimp and a few bites of fish in a thick, spicy tomato broth (I want to say sauce). Heavily battered fritto misto di mare (mixed fried seafood) could have more of a crunch. This dish, too, is mostly calamari rings with some tentacles, a shrimp or two and a solitary piece of fish.

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