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RESTAURANTS / Max Jacobson : Precocious Pasta Grill Leaves Formula Behind but Has Growing Pains

Spaghettini, the swank Seal Beach grill and pasta house, celebrated its first birthday last weekend. Like many babies, it gets by largely on beauty.

Its many dining rooms are large and airy, with high ceilings, terra-cotta floors, handsomely dressed tables, ladder-back chairs and French country murals on the walls. There is a library room with cabbage-green carpets and crescent-shaped booths under shelves of ancient-looking books, so this baby can grow up smart. And there is an open kitchen, complete with mesquite grill and a brick, oak-burning pizza oven, so it won’t have to be jealous of the other kids’ toys. And there is even an ultrachic bar, so it won’t be lonely when it is old enough to swing.

But right now, I would say the kitchen is having its share of growing pains. An appetizer of fried mozzarella dipped in seasoned bread crumbs has almost no character at all, dripping with an undeveloped tomato basil sauce. Green-lipped New Zealand mussels are quite a bit better--large and meaty with a chewy bite, and can stand all by themselves. Too bad some doting chef props them up with more of that tomato sauce. As for the steamed artichoke, expect one so overcooked that it will taste like Pablum.

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Luckily, babies are unpredictable. Even though the iceberg lettuce on the house salad could be crisper, the dressing, a creamy Parmesan with celery seed, is terrific. That makes up for the inclusion of a cherry tomato you couldn’t spear with a fork. And one of the house soups, cioppino , is another surprise, chock-full of shrimp, crab and lusty chunks of snapper. A bowl of this and the fine house bread makes an inexpensive light lunch.

Pizzas are full grown, though yeasty, with plenty of bounce and an aroma of oak. The excellent sausage pizza (using wonderful sausage made by a local company called Santa Fe) has plenty of grilled mushrooms and roasted peppers; the shrimp pizza with virgin olive oil, herbs and provolone cheese makes me want to bill and coo. Only a gooey sausage calzone, oozing ricotta and mushy black olives, makes me cranky. The olives taste as if they come from a can.

All pasta at Spaghettini is made fresh daily--but not necessarily cooked with care. The pastas I ate at lunch were fine, served al dente with the proper amount of sauce. But the ones I sampled at dinner were bland, overcooked and drowning in sauce.

Chicken fettuccine with seasonal vegetables is about the best--excellent strips of mesquite-broiled chicken in a rich Alfredo sauce. And you can’t go far wrong with fusilli and vine-ripened tomatoes in a cheese sauce with fresh basil.

But stay clear of linguine with whole clams: The clams were flavorless and came sitting on top of a bowl of sticky glop. That goes double for half-moon ravioli stuffed with lobster and ricotta cheese: The sauce is starchy, and the filling tastes as if it was made by Gerber.

The entrees , however, are mature and impressive--the best things to eat in this restaurant. The meats are well grilled and seem to be first-quality.

A mixed grill--paillard of chicken with fresh rosemary, that wonderful sausage, and marinated, blackened shrimp--comes with seasoned Swiss chard, firm, tender asparagus and perfectly cooked buttered pieces of carrot.

A large, tender veal chop arrives perfectly blackened and fragrant with rosemary and thyme.

Thick, juicy lamb chops, my personal favorite, are basted in extra virgin olive oil with oregano and garlic and taste like something you might find in a country house in Tuscany. Sliced, marinated sirloin steak is great too; the marinade is one of the best I have ever tasted.

Naturally, there are sweets, which all babies love. Top recommendation here would be Spaghettini mud pie, a wonderfully cloying, convoluted concoction with a chocolate oatmeal crust and a praline almond ice cream filling, floating on a pool of caramel sauce. Also worth hollering about is green apple strudel, served warm with whipped cream.

For adults, there is something called an Italian kiss; it’s made of Bailey’s, steamed milk and Frangelico and it is served in a brandy snifter. I’ll have to try that one when I grow up.

Spaghettini is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.25 to $7.95. Salads and homemade soups are $3.95 to $8.25. Brick-oven pizzas are $6.95 to $8.95. Pastas are $10.25 to $14.50, including soup or salad. Entree s, which include soup or salad and pasta, are $10.95 to $16.95. The good, reasonably priced wine list has many excellent California selections.

SPAGHETTINI

3005 Old Ranch Parkway, Seal Beach

(213) 596-2199

Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Saturday to Sunday, noon to 3:30 p.m.; dinner, 4:30 to 10 p.m., Saturday until 10:30 p.m. and Sunday until 9:30 p.m.

All major cards accepted


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