RESTAURANTS / MAX JACOBSON : Gifted Chef Adroit at Each Italian Style

Has success spoiled Massimo Navaretta? Not on your life.

When we last saw him, Navaretta was sporting a T-shirt, singing along with his Celentano tapes and cooking pasta in a little neighborhood trattoria on Newport Boulevard called Scampi. Then the restaurant took off, and so did Navaretta, selling out to brother Fernando.

After a brief hiatus, Navaretta is back, working his magic anew. You'll find him at his serious new restaurant, Amici, turning out creations such as potato souffle ai porcini and lasagne al pesto. However, he's traded in his T-shirt for a starchy white uniform and his Celentano for opera.

It's not that tapes of Italian pop singers don't suit this handsome trattoria, located on a hard-to-find corner a block from the Orange County Performing Arts Center. It's just that, well, opera suits it better. It's a casual restaurant, to be sure, where you can sit and while away the evening undisturbed; but, it's a serious one, too, where you can get a first-rate dinner and a fine bottle of wine. In that respect, it is unique to the area around the Center.

The restaurant itself is small and intimate, all Art Deco lines and salmon-colored walls that make it look like a private dining room on a '30s cruise ship. Navaretta doesn't sing Puccini, but he does make a faint attempt at imitating Picasso. The walls are plastered with mock Cubist collages he put together all by himself: musical motifs made from guitars, mandolins and flutes.

Of course his real artistry comes from the kitchen, where he turns out some of the area's most surprising contemporary Italian dishes. He is a native of a small coastal town in Napoli called Caserta, and the soul of his cooking is southern Italian. But the restaurant's large menu shows an adroitness at nearly every style Italy has to offer, as well as considerable originality and whimsy. Expect a real tour de force.

Begin with one of the off-menu special antipasti. I've done it and really heard singing. One evening the chef prepared a light fritto of zucchini flowers in a fragrant tomato coulis. I thought his combination of Italian technique and California style was brilliant; oddly enough, the taste reminded me of a dish I once ate at a Japanese tea ceremony.

Another evening I had that magic potato souffle filled with fresh sauteed porcini. The souffle, fluffy and golden brown, had been hollowed out to make room for the mushrooms, which Navaretta has flown in frozen from Italy. They are much better than the dried ones normally seen at Italian markets, incidentally.

Scampi, a carry-over from the other restaurant and one of the house specialties, are another item that he has flown in. Rush right over if you haven't tasted them; these are not prawns but another beast altogether, like small lobsters with a richer, more buttery flavor. The scampi available now are from Iceland, but later on in the season they will be straight from the Sardinian coast. I have tasted both and can't tell the difference. Besides, with all the olive oil and garlic used in the broiling, you won't care. You eat them out of the shells, and they are just fabulous.

A large number of interesting pastas should strike your fancy at some point. Here you need to exercise judgment. Pasta e fagioli, the pasta and bean soup traditionally claimed by Rome, gets the cavalier treatment only a true southern Italian could minister it. There must be about 10 cloves of garlic in every bowlful.

Risotto ai quattro formaggi, a rice casserole with four cheeses, has a wonderful taste, but I question the texture. For some reason, Navaretta uses long-grain rice instead of Italian short-grain (Arborio) rice, a gesture that some would consider sacrilegious. I wouldn't go that far, because I loved the subtle tastes of Gorgonzola and fontina in his dish, but I did miss the grainy, individual quality of the Italian rice. When it comes to risotto, I agree with that Italian who said: "When you can count the number of grains in your mouth, the risotto is great."

Lasagne al pesto is excellent, anyway, a rich green pesto mingled into a ricotta filling between thick, perfectly cooked noodle sheets. There is a fine dish of penne with a vodka cream sauce, short tubes prepared Milan-modern with a definite kick to it. I've saved the best for last: ravioli with ricotta cheese. Chewy and soft, Navaretta's hand-rolled variety puts the others to shame. Here they are topped with a Neapolitan tomato sauce, natch.

With such pasta treats on the menu, I always consider main dishes an afterthought at good Italian restaurants. If you have enough gusto, however, there are several not to be missed. Rotolo al Barolo is my favorite, a sausage-stuffed chicken breast in a wonderful red wine sauce. The veal chop is good, too, accompanied by a plate of sauteed spinach heavy with roasted garlic. Unfortunately, it was also accompanied by the one sub-par thing I tasted in this restaurant, a gummy saffron risotto.

Fish lovers should be happy with plates such as clams or mussels in garlic-rich broth, broiled swordfish or bass brushed with olive oil and various stews of whitefish, scampi and calamari.

Naples is famous for seafood, and Navaretta has the touch. Just don't let the waiters talk you into having them with pastas. They stand on their own.

Navaretta also makes his own desserts. The ever-present tiramisu is the big ticket, soaked in rum on the bottom and properly unctuous in the middle. An oversized crema al caramello is fine and firm, and then, my choice, pear poached in red Barolo wine on a moat of custard cream. That is the lightest of the three, and if you order it you'll be humming Puccini all the way home.

Amici is moderately expensive. Antipasti are $5.95 to $8.95. Soup and pasta are $3.95 to $8.95. Main dishes are $9.95 to $16.95. The back of the menu has a large selection of Italian wines. Special occasion Italian wines such as Ornellaia, Sassicaia and Brunello Biondi-Santi are available from an exclusive list by request only.

AMICI

* 3220 Park Center Drive, Costa Mesa

* (714) 850-9399

* Open for lunch Mondays through Fridays, from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; for dinner Mondays through Thursdays from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sundays.

* Visa and MasterCard accepted

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