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THE FIND

Sunset Strip's new Old World oasis

This is sophisticated Italian at a fair price. Order whenever and however you like, then relax and enjoy.

April 30, 2008|Susan LaTempa | Times Staff Writer

SQUEEZED into a narrow storefront on a touristy block of the Sunset Strip, the tiny (36-seat) Amarone resembles a North Beach trattoria in its physical layout with just four tables downstairs and another handful located up a steep staircase on the mezzanine.

But unlike those time-worn attic-like San Francisco spots, Amarone Kitchen & Wine is new and fresh and wonderfully date-worthy, with white tablecloths and handsome tableware. And the upstairs dining area has windows and high ceilings, so there's an L.A.-bright feeling.

Amarone is no quick-stop pasta joint; main course prices range from $20 to $40. But it delivers the kind of value that turns a restaurant into a neighborhood institution. The trattoria's combination of sophisticated food, fair prices and welcoming, consistently attentive service removes any fine-dining anxiety that recession-wary consumers bring to the table.

You might not be able to afford to eat here every night, but if you want to demonstrate affection and respect for a friend or lover -- or just promise a guest a good meal -- co-owners Alessandro Polastri (who sees to the front of the house and the wines) and Giuseppe Musso (who's the chef) and the staff will work with you, not against you. Plus, there's parking.

Although the owners are Italian, they've designed the menu for L.A. eaters and, in an appealing departure from tradition, encourage diners to create a two- or three-course meal by ordering dishes in whatever order entices. Start with a soup and have a seafood entree, or forget what you've been told about primi and secondi and enjoy your pasta or risotto as a main dish.

But do allow the Amarone staff to ease you through the Old World art of leisurely dining. As you ponder the wine list, order a calamari alla griglia, bite-sized, piping-hot pieces of grilled squid, toothsome and wonderfully smoky. The server will graciously hold off on describing specials until you indicate a desire to consider entrees. Later, you'll be encouraged to linger over dessert, perhaps with a complimentary glass of Moscato, ambrosial and yet refreshing, that has magically appeared.

Seasonal dishes and specials are irresistible and only the determined will be able to order from the printed list. Starters might include an octopus salad, fresh and colorful with crescents of grilled polipo tossed with julienned strips of green onion and red-purple radicchio. A special fresh burrata appetizer one night is super, the soft, rich cow's-milk cheese plated with prosciutto, basil leaves and olives. It comes with delicious piadina, grilled flatbread that's made in-house (as is the fragrant focaccia in the bread basket).

Pastas and entrees are rich and luxurious, with liberal amounts of butter and excellent cheeses brought into play. A delicious saltimbocca is a heady version of the Roman dish of pounded veal wrapped around prosciutto and sage then sauteed in butter. Here it's enriched with Fontina cheese. Not a route to la bella figura, perhaps, but very good eating.

Mushroom risotto tastes almost caramelized, with deep brandy flavors bringing out the sweet complexity of the funghi. A special of house-made squid-ink linguine with shellfish is hearty and wonderfully garlicky, the tender pasta topped with giant head-on shrimp. Perfectly grilled shrimp, langoustine, scallops and calamari make a festive event of a beautiful seafood piatto mixto (mixed plate) that comes with a gorgeous serving of sauteed spinach.

Seafood entrees are exemplary, whether you luck into a roasted branzino special, the fish tender and beautifully seasoned, or a simple saute of sole in wine and lemon-caper sauce.

Amarone is the kind of place where jaded diners compulsively finish every bit of their food, mopping up the lovely sage-butter sauce that lingers when the ravioli (filled with wild mushrooms) have been eaten. And where a three-hour meal is smilingly enabled by the obliging servers who include Polastri. He not only acts as sommelier (adroitly guiding diners through his list of more than 180 regional Italian wines) but is also gracefully present (upstairs and down), so the flow -- the staging, really -- of each table's evening on a busy Saturday night is warmly satisfying.

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susan.latempa@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Amarone Kitchen & Wine

Location: 8868 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 652-2233; www.amarone-la .com.

Price: Appetizers, $9 to $17; soups and salads, $9; pasta and risotti, $11 to $23; main courses, $19 to $38.

Best dishes: Special pastas and entrees such as squid-ink pasta with seafood and roasted branzino; polipogriglia (grilled octopus salad), sogliola al limone (sauteed sole with lemon-caper sauce), risotto funghi (mushroom risotto), torta cioccolato (chocolate torta di riso, rice custard pie).

Details: Open 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. Beer and wine. Validated lot parking behind the restaurant. Major credit cards.

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