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Rocky Hideaway

The Garden at Il Cielo Is Known for Romance. But How's the Food?

October 06, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

As of Oct. 16, S. Irene Virbila's commentary and reporting will move to the paper's newly redesigned Food section. This is her last review for the Magazine. Coverage of Entertaining will continue in these pages.

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Everybody talks about how romantic the garden at Il Cielo is, with its twinkling lights and secluded setting. Located on a quiet stretch of Burton Way in Beverly Hills, it's close to several high-end boutiques--Pratesi (Italian sheets), Christian Louboutin (Parisian shoes) and the exclusive vintage clothing store Lily et Cie--positioned to lure the ladies who lunch. Until recently, I hadn't heard anyone say a thing about the food. Il Cielo never warranted a spot in any foodie's address book, though there was a big to-do a few years back when neighbors wanted to close down the garden because the noise was disturbing them.

Like Orso or Le Dome, both of which have been around forever, Il Cielo had its regulars and existed outside of trends and change. Then in 1999, Il Cielo's owner, Pasquale Vericella, hired Vittorio Lucariello away from Primi, Piero Selvaggio's now-shuttered restaurant, where the young Italian chef had made a splash cooking refined southern Italian dishes. In L.A., where northern Italian cuisine reigns supreme, Lucariello's light and flavorful dishes from the Amalfi coast and his native Naples were a revelation.

I wanted to see what Lucariello would do at Il Cielo on his own. Months after he arrived, though, he'd barely had any effect on Il Cielo's stolid menu. My meal wasn't particularly good, and certainly not interesting, which left me puzzled. Why hire a talented chef if you're not going to let him cook? It seemed a waste, and I didn't think Lucariello would stay long. This food didn't come close to what he'd been cooking at Primi.

Recently, I looked at Il Cielo's menu again. He's finally had the chance to write his own menu. Optimistic, I set off for Il Cielo. But while the ideas are Lucariello's, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Is he even in the kitchen? That night he isn't, my server tells me. For my second visit, I make sure Lucariello is scheduled to be there that night.

Even so, the meal is mixed. The beer batter coating fresh calamari is greasy, and the "zesty" aioli tastes more like Thousand Island dressing. Tomato soup garnished with basil leaves reminds me of V8 juice: it's the quality of the tomatoes. A special salad combines lobster, fig, fennel and asparagus, but none of the ingredients seem to have much reason to be together.

Pork tenderloin with farro salad and grape sounds interesting, but the meat is very dry, and the dish is presented unattractively. My grouper is smothered in those same generic-tasting tomatoes and vegetables, and whole striped bass with fennel is so overcooked that it has the texture of Kleenex. The mashed potatoes that come with it taste old. What is going on?

I'm wondering, again, if Lucariello really is there that night, when the chef strolls through the dining room and recognizes us as patrons from his days at Primi. Would our meal have been any different if he'd realized earlier that we were there?

Just when I think I have a fix on Il Cielo, disappointed more that the talented 30-year-old Lucariello has let down southern Italian cooking, I go back for one more meal. This time the food is wonderful--two stars at the very least.

We begin with burrata pugliese, fresh mozzarella with a heart of cream perched on feathery frisee and accented with olives and salted red radishes. Carpaccio, in this case warm Angus filet strewn with the prettiest little lima beans, peas and diced potatoes, is drizzled with a lively celery-lemon dressing. It's one of the best versions I've had. Inch-wide rigatoni, cooked al dente, are sauced with peas and bacon that's both soft and crisp, plus a lashing of hot chiles. Wonderful.

Risotto with braised veal cheeks is marvelous, too. It's topped with chunks of melting tender veal cheeks, really more like a main course surrounded with a perfect risotto flecked with vegetables in a rich and gelatinous broth. Even something as potentially dull as tomato stuffed with shrimp is unusually well-conceived--rosy little shrimp and delicate artichoke quarters cloaked in mustard sauce and stuffed into a yellow tomato. Now this is the kind of cooking I remember from Primi!

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