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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Satisfied Grazer at Ristorante Mille Grazie on Melrose

“Buon appetito, you guys,” says the hostess at Mille Grazie.

I find that very winning. It takes a certain confidence in the first place, maybe even a certain swagger, for an Israeli chef to open an Italian restaurant where the main decor is a Marilyn Monroe poster. Why not go all the way? Why not partner up with an irrepressible Californian for whom “you guys” is a cheery endearment?

The food itself is certainly confident, and maybe even swaggering with its gusts of garlic and showers of Reggiano Parmesan. It goes for vigorous flavors, for instance the “riddichio-endive salad” (that should be radicchio , of course; Mille Grazie is one of our many restaurants with spelling problems), in its very sharp dressing of balsamic vinegar and fresh thyme. One day there was a stunningly earthy antipasto: chunks of eggplant, baby artichoke and garlic fried so brown everything had developed a faint sweetness.

The rest of the appetizers are more familiar: mozzarella and tomatoes, smoked salmon with capers, carpaccio. The carpaccio is a dramatic one, though, sliced raw beef that ignores the recent trend toward paper-thinness buried under a landslide of Parmesan sliced about equally thick. It comes with fresh thyme and basil vinaigrette.

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The pasta selection is not terribly unusual by today’s standards, though there is an unusual bocattini barese (surely that must be bucatini?) : thick spaghetti with a gentle, curiously haunting sauce of broccoli and fried garlic pureed with cheese and Parmesan. The most impressive is rigatoni in a pesto sauce made richer and mellower than usual with a little cream.

The meat entrees tend toward rich sauces of reduced meat juices, such as a peasanty rabbit stew (not on the daily menu but often available) that must have a strong veal stock along with its mass quantities of garlic. The bistecca fiorentina doesn’t come in the usual tomato sauce but one of veal stock, mushrooms and brandy.

On the other hand, grilled lamb chops come with, of all things, a garlicky tomato sauce, though one flavored with lamb stock. (This must be one of the few restaurants that has any use for lamb stock--there’s often a sort of lamb shank minestrone called zuppa de piede .) Possibly the best thing on the menu is salmone basilico , which turns out to be beautifully cooked salmon, not at all mushy (as the smoked salmon appetizer tends to be, I’m afraid), in a sauce flavored with rosemary, thyme and garlic, though not, despite the name, any basil that I could detect.

I have a mild complaint with the shrimp in the scampi pumante , which could be more flavorful (nice tomato and sherry sauce, though). And the rolled pizza sounds slightly better than it is: a pizza that is rolled up and cooked in jelly-roll form. The filling of mozzarella, mushrooms, prosciutto and peppers is delicious, but the dough in the center does tend to stay a little underdone and doughy.

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Like a lot of Italian restaurants, Mille Grazie does not offer much in the dessert department. Ricotta cheese pie (“cake,” our hostess called it) has a nice strawberry sauce but the tiramisu is unfortunately bland and soggy. The best choice is probably the ice cream tartufo desserts.

And now the meal is over, and here’s our hostess again flashing her winning California smile. “Thanks,” she says. “Ciao, see you soon.”

Ristorante Mille Grazie, 7669 Melrose Ave., (213) 653-2739. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. No alcoholic beverages. Street parking. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30 to $54.


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