Name Change Works Magic for Magia

Times Staff Writer

Like magic, Magia has appeared on Melrose Avenue. It's been there for a while, actually, in the guise of Cafe Melrose, which served Chinese food. Last spring, Chinese went out and Italian came in along with a new owner and chef. And in December, the old name vanished and Magia, Caffe Italiano, was born.

It's a credible effort, but so new there are occasional stumbles, like those of a baby in its first wavering strides. The stumbles are mostly on the fringes, like the night the dinner rolls turned up burned and rock hard. Other times they were fabulous--little knots of dough tossed in a big bowl with herbs, garlic and olive oil.

The Caesar salad is, for the most part, ideal, its greens crisp and fresh, its dressing well blended. Too bad about those solid, soggy, unchewable croutons--the same dinner rolls cut into little pieces. The lasagna had its problems too--not in concept but in the blast of heat that melted cheese over the top but also dried and toughened the pasta.

Orders sometimes get mixed up. A grilled chicken and red pepper pizza arrived instead of the sausage pizza ordered. No problem there, though. The chicken pizza was terrific. So was the sausage one (pizza con carne), according to the persistent customer who got it on his next visit.

So if you don't mind the occasional rough edge, go and enjoy the friendly informality, the good wine and some very good dishes. Live music, too, even during the week. I find the loud sounds intrusive in a small restaurant. But others may have tougher ear drums.

What to order? Try the chicken or veal al marsala. The Marsala sauce here is wonderful. I could spoon it up like soup. Lots of people one night were ordering veal saltimbocca-- rolls of veal, prosciutto and cheese held together with long, slim skewers. The dish seemed rich and salty to me so I ate only a little and took the rest home. The result is a testimonial for doggy bagging. Reheated, the veal displayed mellow flavors that had been subdued on the first go round. Sage and garlic came to the fore, balancing the richness of the cheese and saltiness of the prosciutto.

Rigatoni with pesto sauce--a creamy version with subtle basil flavor--was nice. And I liked the soft but chewy risotto. The porcini mushrooms specified on the menu were replaced in the risotto by ordinary mushrooms. But at least the waiter pointed that out in advance.

Fresh tuna baked with mozzarella di bufalo, sliced tomatoes and basil sounded interesting but didn't work, in my opinion. The heavy, gray slabs of tuna simply did not meld with the other components. But I can't say that about scampi spumanti-- shrimp with fresh tomatoes, arrugula and a light but spicy sauce on a bed of fettuccine. I'd order that one again.

A cream sauce over veal tortellini had no taste, but fettuccine with chicken and Champagne cream sauce was fine. There are sandwiches, calzone, an interesting carpaccio with artichoke hearts, traditional soups (minestrone, pasta e fagioli and stracciatella) and occasional specials. If you have any room for dessert after this hearty food, Magia offers a wicked chocolate fantasy cake and a good, not very sweet tiramisu. One night, I saw the prettiest fruit tarts imaginable. Unfortunately, I was too full to try one, and they didn't appear again.

Given the Italian accent, you would expect an Italian chef or certainly an Italian owner. But Magia has neither. Peggy McConnell is the proprietor. Omri Siklai, the amiable young chef, is from Israel.

Entrees (top price is $13.95) come with a choice of vegetables or angel hair pasta with tomatoes, garlic and basil. Pastas are $6.50 up; pizzas are $7.50 to $12.95, and you can have a bowl of minestrone for $3.50.

All wines listed can be ordered by the glass or bottle. Among the reds, try the Sicilian Duca di Salaparuta. It is easy to drink and suits anything but the lightest fish dish.

Magia, Caffe Italiano, 7661 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; Call (213) 653-5364 for reservations. Open from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to midnight Tuesday through Friday; from noon to midnight Saturday and from 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Accepts MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Diner's Club. Street parking.

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