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Italian Cuisine With a Spark of the Beach


Take a million-dollar view and add good Italian food. Presto: You have Spark Woodfire Cooking, a casual Italian place where you come for pizza, roast meat and serious wines by the glass, to say nothing of that view.

Spark Woodfire is on the mezzanine level of a busy shopping and cinema complex in Huntington Beach. There was a time when all you could get around here was a smoothie or a burger, but this beach town of competitive surfers, bodybuilders and in-line skaters has come of age as an eating destination since the opening of Chimayo Grill across the street from here, followed by the upscale Chinese bistro Red Pearl around the corner.

Getting to Spark Woodfire on a busy summer night can be a challenge--Pacific Coast Highway is a mess, even the bike path across the street is crowded--but the rewards are considerable. This handsome space, formerly a Louise's Trattoria, has been completely redone as a villa with straw-colored walls and lots of dark wood. On warm evenings, the best tables are on a broad porch that looks directly out onto the Pacific. If it gets cool, there are portable heaters.

Chef Tom Shields cooked at the Newport Beach steakhouse Bungalow before taking over the stoves here, so he knows the beach crowd and its tastes. I have eaten at the original Spark in Studio City several times, and I find it interesting to see how differently people eat in the two locations. Valley people evidently like pizza and salad. In Huntington Beach, it's meatloaf, flatiron steak and loads of rotisserie chicken, all cooked on the restaurant's wood-fired rotisserie.

Nevertheless, I always start a meal here with a pizza. It's the same sort of pizza you'd get at Alto Palato, the Studio City Spark or any corner pizzeria in Rome, for that matter, meaning that it's wafer-thin, has a delicately crunchy crust that is slightly blackened on the bottom, and is topped with authentic Italian ingredients. You can't go wrong with the simple pizza Margherita with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil, but I'm a sucker for the pizza topped with arugula, prosciutto and shaved pecorino cheese.

I can't resist the soups, either. Pappa al pomodoro is a soothing bread and tomato soup, but even better here is ribollita, a hearty vegetable soup served with a crust of Italian bread sticking out of the middle of the bowl.

The salads are fine, too, even though I prefer to concentrate on pizza and roast meat when I'm here. When I do crave a salad, it is the Spark Cobb, a mix of chopped Romaine with roast chicken, fried pancetta, crumbled blue cheese and sunflower seeds (of all things) in a refreshing buttermilk herb dressing. I'm also fond of the Caesar, mostly for its polenta croutons.

Now for those rotisserie meats. My first choice is porchetta, a leg of pork crusted with pepper and herbs, fatty and flavorful but not, by design, as moist as American roast pork.

Another good one is the lemon-and-herb-roasted chicken, its crisp skin liberally brushed with rosemary, garlic and olive oil. The scent of wood permeates the flesh, just as in American barbecue.

Too bad the Italian sausage is too salty, and the Italian meatloaf, made with a mixture of beef, pork and veal, is somewhat generic. You can taste all three of these by ordering the arrosto misto platter.

There's a lot more here that merits attention. Burrata caprese is a whole-milk mozzarella served with tomatoes, basil and olive oil. It's almost impossibly rich (the center is mostly cream) and hard to categorize as an appetizer, main course or side dish.

Herb-crusted Alaskan halibut, moist and perfectly done from the wood grill, comes with green beans and chive mashed potatoes. Among the pastas, one of the best is penne with a beef and sausage ragu, a meaty sauce punctuated by plum tomatoes and red peppers.

Good dessert choices include a tiramisu, Italian bread pudding and a rich cheesecake with a thick graham cracker crust. There are also terrific Italian gelati, as good as you can get on the West Coast.

The Italian restaurant renaissance has finally arrived in Huntington Beach.

Spark Woodfire Cooking, 300 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach. (714) 960-0996. Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday-Sunday. Dinner, 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m., Friday-Saturday. Full bar. Validated parking in structure. All major cards. Dinner for two, $29-$47.

What to Get: burrata caprese, any pizza, Spark Cobb salad, ribollita, porchetta, roasted chicken.

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