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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Rich Pancetta Dresses Up Bistro Pasta Sauces

Abistro? How wonderful--basically a French bar, right? Full of people tossing back red wine and simple French dishes with fries on the side while they smoke funny little short cigarettes?

The Bistro of Santa Monica does have a bar, though since we’re in Southern California, it’s practically unused, and there are a couple of French posters on display (along with an American genre painting or two). For some reason, though, this is essentially an Italian restaurant.

You can pick your pasta from a list of more than a dozen kinds and choose one of the 29 sauces. You could order whole wheat linguine with a sauce of double cream and blue cheese, or cheese tortellini in olive oil and garlic, or potato gnocchi alla primavera. It’s up to you, mon ami.

This is also a bistro where there’s an unlimited salad bar and the waiter may allow you to choose your frozen dessert directly from the cardboard freezer box it was delivered in. And since this particular bistro is in the shadow of mighty hospitals, the menu boasts that it cooks without salt, sugar or preservatives--not counting dessert.

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All faintly odd, but the place seems quite popular.

The salad bar is pretty ordinario : greens with stuff to put on top, French or ranch or honey-mustard dressing, coleslaw, potato salad, pasta salad. There is also a mushy green thing that may be overdone spinach. The two bean salads are pretty good, the white bean model being livelier than the black. The best soup is votre traditionnel split pea.

I like most of the pasta sauces, particularly the ones including pancetta , which tastes a lot like American smoked bacon, but is thick and flavorful. For example, the pancetta- spiked carbonara sauce is very good, extremely rich with rather funky cheese. The calabrese sauce, with cream and pancetta, is also rich, but relieved by green peas. The tomato sauces tend to taste like plain tomato paste, but pancetta saves the salsa amatriciana, as does hot pepper.

However, the pasta is somewhat overdone about half the time, and I find some of the sauces excessively simple.

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The dozen non-pasta entrees are familiar Italian choices like eggplant (or chicken) parmigiana , veal (or chicken) piccata-- heavy on the capers, that one--and so on. More than a third of them are chicken dishes, again confirming my health-food suspicions about the place.

On the other hand, the “lamb shanks osso buco” (meaning lamb shanks in wine with tomato and carrot) suggest a vaguely Near Eastern provenance. So does the name of lasagne alla Mitra , though not the dish itself, which is unusual only in the relative sweetness of the tomato sauce and the bite of underdone garlic.

Dessert includes a conventional carrot cake, a rather gluey rice pudding heavy on the nutmeg, creme caramel that is not at all bad, though it could be creamier, and the ice cream confections, usually known as tartuffi , which are listed on the menu as dolci. These are the ones submitted for your approval in the traditional Santa Monica bistro maniere in their cardboard box de freezer.

Suggested dishes (entrees include soup and salad): linguin e alla carbonara, $10.95; penne alla calabrese, $11.95; creme caramel, $3.

Bistro of Santa Monica, 2301 Santa Monica Blvd. (213) 453-5442. Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday, dinner Tuesday through Sunday, Sunday brunch. Full bar. Parking lot (entrance on 23rd Street). All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $24 to $40.


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