Lots of Pasta and Charm at Vinnie's

Times Staff Writer

I don't know if Garfield, the lasagna-loving cat, would have liked the dish as prepared at Vinnie's Italian Kitchen. But I thought it was quite nice. Instead of the usual dense square of pasta, heavy with dark meat sauce, Vinnie's presents a light layering of crinkly edged noodles, cheeses (ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella) and bright tomato-meat sauce. If there was any flaw, it was heavy brown speckling on the gratin dish in which the lasagna was served.

Located in a shopping center off Reseda Boulevard in Tarzana, Vinnie's is a popular neighborhood restaurant, a small place that is now enlarging to accommodate the demand.

"It's like going to Grandma's house. It's very family oriented," said one customer. And she was right. "If you eat all that, I'll give you $500," a mother promised a child faced with a loaded platter of pasta squiggles. That dinner may have cost more than she planned, because the food at Vinnie's, although robust and generous, is not overpowering. And you can eat more of the big servings than you would anticipate.

The menu lists enough dishes to satisfy anyone, but there are also daily specials posted on a board. The white pizza is usually there. It's a thin-crusted composition of mozzarella cheese and spinach that makes a nice appetizer. Another write-in is the holiday salad, a hefty layering of Boston lettuce, tomato, red onion, delicately flavored fresh mozzarella cheese and roasted red and green peppers, dressed with balsamic vinegar. A wonderful dish.

One evening there was pasta puttanesca, made with rotelli and a lot of nice and spicy tomato sauce. Stuffed artichokes and asparagus vinaigrette are almost always listed. And recently there was cioppino, the full-flavored, California style seafood stew.

Sometimes you have to move quickly to get the specials. Chicken rollatini, stuffed with spinach, ham and cheese, appealed to so many customers that it ran out early in the dinner hour. That left me with chicken saltimbocca-- boneless, skinless chicken breast topped with prosciutto ham and mozzarella and accompanied by a thin, dark brown Marsala sauce. Second choice, but not second rate.

Next time, the kitchen had a better supply of the two specials that interested me: chicken canelloni and ravioli with four cheeses. The big, floppy ravioli were stuffed with gorgonzola, Parmesan, ricotta and fresh mozzarella cheeses, and their tender wrappers were made at the restaurant. The sauce blended crushed pear tomatoes with basil and garlic.

The canelloni--crepes filled with chicken, black olives and pimiento-- were topped with a rich-tasting Bechamel sauce. As in the case of the ravioli dough, the crepes were made at Vinnie's.

One night I was lured by poached whitefish in broth with shrimp and clams. The intent was good and so was the fish, but an overload of salt sabotaged the dish. Another evening, the sausage on a pizza didn't taste quite right. And I thought the escarole and bean soup was overly bland. But complaints are few and minor, and in the case of a disaster such as the salty fish, Vinnie's removes the offending dish without protest.

Hot garlic bread comes with the food, and plain, garlic-flavored pasta accompanies entrees such as scampi ($10.95) and chicken saltimbocca ($8.) Italian wines outnumber California wines, but the important point is that reasonably priced bottles are available, and wine is also sold by the glass.

Vinnie's opened six years ago under the name Fab's Italian kitchen. The name was changed to Vinnie's one year ago and commemorates the late Vinnie Fabrocini, who was the original chef. Vinnie's son Joseph now does the cooking along with Fausto and Miguel Hernandez, who are brothers, and Vince Metichecchia. All were trained by Vinnie. Two other sons, Vinnie Jr. and Emil, share in the management of this family business.

Vinnie's Italian Kitchen, 5538 Reseda Blvd., Tarzana, (818) 705-3800. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations for groups of five or more. Accepts Visa and MasterCard. Moderate prices. Ample parking in the shopping center lot.

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