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Savoring North Italian Cuisine in North County

When it opened a few years ago, Scalini was particularly attractive as the destination of a Sunday drive in the country.

The restaurant still looks across Via de la Valle at polo grounds and open fields, but the nearby hillsides that formerly grew dun-colored brush and sprinklings of wildflowers now sprout expensive housing tracts. In its mood and menu, Scalini seems well able to match its neighborhood as the landscape becomes progressively more urban.

The place always has been somewhat urbane, especially during the racing season, when many of its patrons smelled of thoroughbreds, Kentucky blue grass and the Saratoga turf club; in fact, the formality of the dining room and the casual tone of the clientele combined to produce a sense of sophistication rarely found in these parts. At the time, the menu was pleasantly ahead of itself, and if other Italian houses in North County have caught up, Scalini has held its own. A couple of recent visits turned up cooking that was consistently well-prepared and well-presented.

The common denominator that unites the disparate styles and elements of Italian cookery is garlic, and if one enters on a busy night it is the scent of garlic sizzling in olive oil that forms a first and lasting impression of Scalini. Most of the entrees, which are relatively restrained and “northern” in their approach, avoid garlic, but first courses and pastas are transformed by an almost abandoned use of it.

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A primary example of the way garlic can change the direction of a dish is the penne all’arrabiata (“raging” pasta). This is a common Italian presentation of tube-shaped macaroni tossed with a lightly cooked tomato sauce spiked with bits of hot red pepper. A little garlic usually seasons the sauce, but Scalini throws in a large spoonful of coarsely chopped, raw garlic, which supplies a sensation of heat quite different from that touched off by the peppers. The result is delicious, with the only caveat that the penne may not make the best prelude to a social situation.

The antipasto table also includes tidbits that sigh with garlic’s heavy breath. Especially notable here are the the slices of eggplant and zucchini that have been grilled, then marinated in olive oil. Topped with slivers of strong, musky Parmesan, these vegetables make particularly savory mouthfuls. The buffet usually offers six or seven items--sliced tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and basil leaves, a cloying chicken salad in homemade mayonnaise, excellent marinated olives, a cold compote of chick peas and tuna--and a little of each will be included on the antipasto plate.

Elegant Pizzas

The kitchen puts a great deal of emphasis on starters, and, in addition to the cold antipasti, it turns out sauteed shrimp finished in the arrabiata style; puff pastry filled with shellfish in a creamed tomato sauce; snails served in a fashion similar to the “bourguignon” style that turns up on so many menus, but here with the addition of mixed herbs, and steamed mussels in a broth flavored with herbs, garlic and tomato.

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Four rather elegant pizzas make prime candidates to be shared as first courses, but because the restaurant often serves a round of dough topped with olive oil, garlic, salt and basil as a snack while guests read the menu, the pizzas can seem rather beside the point. Nonetheless, it is an impressive selection that begins with the Margherita (according to Neapolitans, the one true pizza), a pie topped simply with tomato, mozzarella, basil and oregano. More elaborate versions include the “moskovskaya,” a theoretically Russian variation topped with cream cheese, smoked salmon and caviar, and the house special, which combines sun-dried tomatoes with cheese and sweet peppers.

The pasta list perhaps takes itself too seriously because it excludes the simple, classic sauce of quickly cooked tomatoes seasoned with nothing more than a little basil and salt. Spaghetti or vermicelli topped with a bit of this at times seems the perfect kickoff to an Italian meal, and it is a little surprising to not find it on an otherwise far-ranging menu.

There is a close cousin to it, though, the capelini Santa Margherita, or thin pasta tossed with chopped raw tomato, basil, mozzarella and garlic. There is a pleasing lightness to this dish, even though it is rather substantial. The pasta mood grows racy with the fusilli alla Mediterranea, or twists in a spicy sauce of sausage, cured black olives, tomato and seasonings, and mellow with the elegantly restrained ravioli boscaiola, which swim in a tomatoed cream sauce filled out with porcini mushrooms and bits of Italian pancetta bacon.

Entrees definitely take the tone identified these days as “Northern Italian,” but, despite the general restraint there are plenty of such typical accents as lemon, rosemary and other strong herbs and garlic.

Grilled fresh salmon arrives in dill sauce, grilled swordfish with capers and lemon butter and sauteed scallops in a sauce of grain mustard and cream, and any of these preparations would be equally at home in a French restaurant. More specifically Italian are the excellent grilled lamb chops, beautifully crusted and redolent of rosemary and garlic; the sea bass amalfitana, finished with a fresh tomato sauce, olives and basil, and the veal scallops in a choice of lemon butter or Marsala sauce.

The most interesting-sounding veal dish, the vitello Scalini, was one of the kitchen’s less successful offerings, because it featured a gravy-like sauce that appeared to have been thickened with flour, something generally not done in Italian sautes. It also went shy on an advertised component, eggplant, offering only a tiny scrap of it under the coverlet of prosciutto melted fontina cheese that draped the sauteed veal scallops.

The menu closes extravagantly with lobster fra diavola , a spicy dish that includes a brandy flambe in its preparation, and with the interesting hybrid called filetto Rossini. The Italians claim this decidedly French combination of grilled beef filet, foie gras, truffles and brown sauce as their own, because it was the notorious favorite of composer Giacomo Rossini.

The dessert tray is the one perfunctory presentation of the meal. It includes profiteroles, the French dessert of ice cream-stuffed cream puffs, and tiramisu , the very Roman dessert of whipped mascarpone cheese, flavored here with powdered espresso. It is creamy, but not very exciting.

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