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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Sostanza’s Italian Fare Carries Aroma of the Familiar

Some people look at Sostanza’s wall, with its crowded, garish mural of the annual horse-racing festival in Siena, and say, “Oh yeah. A rip-off of what’s-that-place in New York--Palio.” A lot more look at the menu and say, “Looks a lot like Prego’s, doesn’t it?” Maybe this restaurant was named Sostanza (substance) not just because that’s the name of the owner’s favorite trattoria in Florence but to insist that even though the style may seem borrowed, the content is there. And anyway, if you were going to follow models, Prego and Palio would be pretty good ones, though come to think of it I bet I could get along fine without that damned mural.

Generally, the menu does resemble Prego’s a great deal, both in typography and in its eye for less familiar regional Italian items. To take the appetizers, there are Sicilian arancini (“little oranges”), five cute little deep-fried balls of rice, made tangy by mozzarella and ham with the odd pea here and there, side by side with the Piedmontese specialty bagna cauda, a sauce oddly like an Indonesian peanut butter that happens to be made from garlic, anchovies and olive oil into which you swizzle raw vegetables.

The entrees are the best part of this menu. There’s a wonderful roast pork loin (arista al forno), rolled around a filling of garlic and perfumed with rosemary and fennel, well roasted and served with a bit of wine sauce. Lamb chops (costolette di agnello) are prepared much the same way (without the rolling), and they’re nice, sweet chops in a straightforward red wine sauce. Sostanza makes its own duck sausage, a bit on the salty side and not tasting very strongly of duck but an excellent, meaty sausage anyway. It comes with slices of polenta and spinach sprinkled with grated cheese.

The pizzas are straightforward thin-crust models and not overloaded, but the pastas seem more interesting, often made with thinner, more delicate dough you expect for a particular dish. In particular, the ravioli di pesce --actually cappeletti rather than ravioli, if you want to get technical--are made with astonishingly thin, almost paper-thin pasta. The fish filling happens to be on the stodgy and flavorless side, but the tomato sauce is really quite attractive, with its big, thick slices of cooked garlic. Pappardelle al sugo di selvaggina comes in a sauce based on whatever game is available. When I had it, the sauce was duck--as with the duck sausage, not a very loud duck flavor (the chunks of ground meat were like gamy hamburger), but rich and delicious.

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The desserts are not always quite up to what has gone before. The ice creams in chocolate crust, called tartuffo, change all the time and they can be quite good--say, espresso ice cream in chocolate crust, or a bit of raspberry ice cream surrounded by chocolate ice cream in a chocolate crust speckled with miniature chocolate bits. Not all the tartuffi are so inspired, though. I’ve had one that was more or less like a frozen Jr. Mint.

The fresh-made ices are a safer bet. And if you really want to have a blow-out, there are several of those southern Italian concoctions that involve mostly cream, such as tiramisu-- a bit of espresso-soaked cake and a lot of whipped mascarpone cheese, all sprinkled with cocoa. Or zuppa inglese, a little cake and a whole lot of meringue, pastry cream and chocolate cream.

The chefs are from northern Italy, though, and there are also more French desserts sometimes, such as profiteroles. And things from further north, too. When the profiteroles ran out, my waitress suggested this rolled-up dessert for which she didn’t have a name. It was full of chocolate and cream like a lot of the other desserts and she never could find out the name, but I saw it at the delicatessen display as I was walking out and asked the waiter what it was called. “Questo? " he said. “Strudel. " My first Italian strudel.

Sostanza, 12100 Wilshire Blvd., West Los Angeles, (213) 207-4273. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, for dinner nightly. Full bar. Validated parking at lunch; both valet and free lot parking at dinner. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $24 to $54.


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