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Despite the Look Outside, Gio’s Is a Treat Inside

Times Staff Writer

The big sign overhead says COMEDY, and it’s hard to spot the name of the restaurant. There’s a splash of nail-polish-red paint outside the door, and the street looks untrustworthy. Inside, the small dark bar is full of neighborhood types, but the dining room is empty.

Why eat here? Because Gio’s off-putting impression is only that: an impression. The dining room is actually quite nice, done up in cozy country European style. Dark wood, brick and wrought iron achieve a rustic look that fits with decorative plates on the walls and the burnished glow of copper utensils.

The lamp shade at my booth bore a quaint saying, in French, about a prelate’s wish for good wine so that he wouldn’t insult the Lord with a grimace when taking Communion. Gio’s wine list would save the prelate from embarrassment but not permit him much excitement. What impressed me more was the double layer of starchy white cloths covering the table. That indicated proper values here: Laundry bills do not take precedence over the accouterments of fine dining.

Some Brazilian Dishes

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Fine is perhaps not the right word for dining here, but the food is good enough, which means that it is quite satisfactory and sometimes even very good, if you don’t mind the occasional glitch. The menu is Italian-Continental, except for a repertoire of Brazilian dishes left over from a previous chef. I tried one of these, peixada a Brasileira, a sort of paella-style presentation of shrimp, scallops and fat mussels in a tomato-cream sauce that allegedly included coconut milk. I say allegedly because the flavor was not apparent. At $42 for two, this is one of the restaurant’s two most expensive dishes. The other is a Brazilian mixed grill.

The kitchen evades the monotony of a fixed menu with a constant parade of daily specials. This summer, they’ve ranged from that almost defunct oldie, chicken Veronique, to cioppino, grilled salmon with herbs and shark Grenobloise (butter, lemon, capers, white wine).

I had good luck with one night’s boned chicken breast in a cream sauce that picked up the woodsy flavor of porcini (Italian mushrooms) and another evening’s slices of filet mignon cooked to the right rareness and coated with mustard cream sauce.

But I had the most fun watching a waiter named Renato mix the Caesar salad. This is not a classic Tijuana Caesar, but it is strikingly good. Starting with a bowlful of the house dressing, Renato added one ingredient after another to produce a salad with aggressive flavor. And what better word than aggressive is there for a Caesar spiked with Tabasco, laced with red wine vinegar, mustard and lemon juice, salted with anchovies and smothered with Parmesan cheese--all this and more added to a base dressing that injected its own strong note of tarragon.

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Lots of Food

Sometimes Gio’s offers dinner for $20, which covers soup, salad, bread, entree, dessert and coffee. Because some entrees are $18.95 with just the salad and bread, this is a worthwhile buy. It was, however, more food than I could eat. What saved me was the soup, a school-cafeteria-style chicken noodle that I bypassed to concentrate on better things. Furthermore, this set menu did not cop out with a scoop of ice cream for dessert but allowed a choice of anything on hand. Gio’s desserts include a fine, rich chocolate mousse, an excellent tiramisu and an apple strudel with tired pastry.

Lunch is apparently the busy time at this restaurant, but my one daytime visit produced a weak meal, and I concluded that dinner was better. The fried calamari was just passable, the mozzarella marinara was tough and heavy and the shrimp added to spaghetti alla Creola looked like tiny things from a can. The farfalle (butterfly pasta) with salmon, chives and, allegedly, vodka, was much better. There was, allegedly, whiskey in the spaghetti dish--and my companion noted the taste for liquor-flavored pasta sauces here--but we chose to salute the lamp shade’s wine-loving prelate on his own terms, with a decent bottle of Barolo.

Gio’s, 7574 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 876-1120. Lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Friday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., to 10:30 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards accepted. Free parking in lot behind restaurant.

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