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Jonathan Gold
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Il Sole Ristorante

Sunset Strip is an oddball mix of glitz and grit, but even where it seems most uptown, near Sunset Plaza, it's not all flash. Tucked in among the high-end boutiques, latest clubs and restaurant terraces is the occasional hidden hangout for the rich and famous.

Il Sole Ristorante is one. Low-key and almost anonymous, with nothing in particular to draw the casual observer inside, this long-running Italian place gets more than its fair share of stars and hangers-on. But it's also a magnet for the neighborhood, that sweep of hills above the Strip.

In this season, the tiny terrace in front is closed off with plastic curtains. Only the valets, shoulders hunched against the wind, and a street musician playing the guitar for coins while his dog passes the hat catch your eye as you realize, too late, you've just driven past.

The star-struck might imagine any place celebs go would be extremely glamorous, trendy and have something — great décor, fabulous food, a suave maitre d' — to recommend it. Il Sole, sorry to disappoint, has none of that. It is, in fact, the antithesis of trendy. And maybe that's the point.

Il Sole has just the kind of raffish looks to appeal to Hollywood insiders with money to burn. It has an East Coast, early Greenwich Village feel, dark and cozy. There are just two tables in the bar, where wines are lined up like soldiers on the shelves behind. The main dining room isn't much bigger, and tables are jammed close together along the walls. The couple seated at the next two-top might be two kids in wool watch caps and slouchy jeans catching a bite before a movie, but they might just as easily be major names or faces.

It's a place where people in the limelight know they can kick back and relax into something close to anonymity. Here, it's possible — just — to have something like a normal night out. Nobody is going to crane their neck to get a better look. The staff won't discreetly slip the famous director a script or a head shot.

In spite of the high fame quotient, when it comes to food Il Sole is like any neighborhood Italian in any neighborhood, no better and probably no worse than similar such places anywhere in greater Los Angeles. Prices are quite a bit higher, though: Rent on the Strip isn't cheap and Il Sole's clientele is used to paying top dollar for everything.

In a city where everyone is rushing around trying to be in on the next new thing, whether it's a restaurant or a film, Il Sole, which opened in 1995, is remarkably blasé. The menu never changes, though the owners and the chefs do. The same salads and pastas issue from the kitchen year after year. I suspect the appeal is that it seems like a little mom-and-pop place. It's not the least bit slick. Paint is peeling on the windowsills. The chairs squeak. An added-on space next door is merely paneled in mirrors. Nobody spent big bucks on a designer or the décor. And so it must be a kind of relief from the slick, glam venues where you have to dress to be seen. Here, it's so dark, you could be sitting next to Brad or Angelina and not notice unless you're given to scrutinizing the occupants of the next table. So it's laid-back and easy, a combination that's harder to find in this town than you'd think.

When the new owners, music manager and film producer Arnold Stiefel and rock promoter Andrew Hewitt, both of whom were fans of the restaurant, took over in 2003, they brought in Bruce Marder of Capo to consult. He's tweaked the menu, but not so much you'd notice. It's as boring as could be. No surprises. Not a one, though I'm happy to see pasta e fagioli and pappa al pomodoro as appetizers. Today, it happens the kitchen is out of the former, so I order the latter, the familiar Tuscan bread and tomato soup, this one dotted with ricotta cheese. It's bland and comforting, though — not a great version. On another visit, the pasta e fagioli, made with white beans, is virtually tasteless until someone at the table thinks to ask for some sea salt. A little sprinkle, and — eccolá! — it comes to life, more or less.

Clams steamed with garlic in white wine and olive oil served in a bowl with the juices and with bread to mop up the sauce make a good appetizer to share. So does the burrata, creamy fresh cheese heaped on the plate with some tomatoes and a few sprigs of basil. But neither involve real cooking.

The pasta testPasta is always the test for an Italian restaurant. On the positive side, I've never gotten a pasta dish at Il Sole that was overcooked. On the negative, whether it's penne or linguine, whatever the shape, the pasta is overwhelmed by the sauces, which tend to be heavy handed.

Tomato sauce is OK, the meat ragù flecked with vegetables a little better. But when the waiter one night proposes a special — fettuccine with butter, sage and black truffles — we're curious what kind of truffles they are. The waiter goes to ask, and comes back with the answer: black truffles from the Alba area of Piedmont.

Wrong. Alba is famous for white truffles, not black, and at any rate, it's past the season. The kitchen ought to be more knowledgeable than that, especially when, as we learned after I asked, it turns out this pasta dish is $35. And if you just jump in and order the veal chop special, also with truffles, without first inquiring the price, you'll find out too late that this main course will set you back $65. Of course, on two occasions no waiter thought the price worth mentioning. Maybe the clientele just doesn't care, but I do want to be informed if a special is, say, twice the price of everything else on the menu.

That fettuccine special is nicely cooked, but overdosed with butter and sparse on the truffles, which aren't big on either flavor or perfume. If you weren't thinking about the price, it's pleasant enough. The veal chop itself is quite good, but the overpriced truffle embellishment doesn't add a thing to its allure. That's based on good veal, expertly cooked to a rosy pink.

Risotto is decent, nothing more, flavored with porcini and an unfortunate dose of white truffle "essence," a fancy way to say truffle oil. Cooking the risotto in a richer stock would help enormously.

The usual suspectsSalads don't seem to catch the kitchen's interest. They're perfunctorily made, the usual collection of greens and/or radicchio or arugula in a balsamic dressing. That alone makes the salads seem dated. And that hazelnut oil and raspberry dressing on a goat cheese and baby green salad is a tired relic of the '70s.

Main courses are limited to a handful of familiar items that are terrifically overpriced for the quality. A sautéed chicken breast, albeit free-range, will run you $28, while costoletta di vitello alla Milanese, a pounded and breaded veal cutlet, is an astonishing $44. It's not bad, really, not at all greasy, recognizably veal, its golden crumbed crust heaped with a salad of arugula and tomatoes. But $44?

That people would fork over this kind of money for this kind of cooking night after night defies common sense. And when a restaurant can get away with charging $11 for an ordinary tiramisu, it boggles the mind. Wine prices are equally high, and the selection makes no attempt to encompass what's happening in Italian wines today.

Expensive restaurants usually have more to offer than Il Sole: a charismatic personality at the door, breathtaking décor, impeccable ingredients or a high-profile chef. Il Sole has none of that, yet, it's packing them in. In this vast, sometimes impersonal city, you can never underestimate the power of cozy and discreet.

*

Il Sole Ristorante

Rating:

Location: 8741 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 657-1182.

Ambience: Cozy Italian with a neighborhood feel despite its Sunset Strip address. The crowd is a mix of kids who want to hang on the boulevard, shoppers, stars and locals from the hills above, people who won't blink twice at the high prices for such average food.

Service: Unflappable and pleasant. Servers here have seen everything.

Price: Appetizers, $11 to $26; pasta, $19 to $28; main courses, $24 to $44; desserts, $9 to $11.

Best dishes: Zuppeta di vongole, burrata with tomatoes, penne all' arrabbiata, spinach and ricotta ravioli, costoletta di vitello, tagliata.

Wine list: Unadventurous selection. Corkage, $25.

Best table: One in the corner of the main dining room.

Details: Open for dinner from 6 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 6 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Wine and beer. Valet parking, $4.50.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.

Outstanding.
Excellent.
Very good.
Good.
No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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