RESTAURANT REVIEW : Salads Are Tops at Milano's

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Milano's Italian Kitchen has concept written all over it: casual trattoria with low prices and a menu that runs to wood-fired pizza, ostentatious pastas and giant salads with international toppings. (Hey, what's Oriental lime chicken salad doing in a restaurant called Milano's? Welcome to the '90s.)

The restaurant sits on the ground floor of a giant office complex, and it certainly has the big-city look. The walls are sponged a snazzy orange, and the bar tables are illuminated by Hopperesque overhead lights. A wood pizza fire glows in the flashy, all-stainless open kitchen, next to which Young Turks are cramped into rows of designer booths. Look at them stoking up on those giant ceramic platters of food under the glow of Diva lights, savoring the moment. Ah, success. Everyone hopes a little will rub off on them.

I sense concept everywhere, but I'm not sure what this concept is. Aren't those tomato cans and olive oil containers on the sill over the kitchen? And what about those hokey display antipastos--you know, the 10-gallon bottles of pickled vegetables that no one ever opens? This is neighborhood stuff, not the stuff of big city success stories.

And are we really supposed to pour and drink this jug wine, which turns out to be from Robert Mondavi, on the honor system? Your waiter will tell you that the idea comes from Milanese tradition, where a jug of homemade wine graces every dinner table. I like these goofy little glasses the table is stocked with, but the idea seems disingenuous, a marketing tool. Who drinks homemade wine in a metropolis like Milan? And besides, a Chianti or a Barbaresco would taste much better with this food.

Milano's Italian Kitchen is serious about sharing, though. It stocks every table with a little stack of appetizer dishes. One dish that seems made for this idea would be antipasto Milano, a large platter of Genoa salami, good prosciutto, soft clumps of bocconcini mozzarella and some mixed grilled vegetables, all drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.

You'll need to ask for extra spoons, though, if you order Milano's minestrone. In fact, don't bother. It's an upscale version of Campbell's Chunky Vegetable and no less heavy on the salt. The soups of the day, such as lentil or pinto bean, fall into the same category, so remember that if you add grated Parmesan, they'll become even saltier.

These waiters have itchy trigger fingers, by the way. Give them the slightest encouragement and they'll shower your food with cheese.

Sharing the polenta cup is a much dicier proposition. The thing just falls apart. This is an oddball dish, anyway--the traditional white cornmeal staple literally molded into a cup, then filled with a hearty vegetable ragout of roasted peppers, black olives, broccoli and spicy marinara sauce. Sounds awful and looks worse. But you know what? It tastes pretty good.

Now we're into these salads, all of which are meal-sized. Oriental lime chicken jumps off the menu at you, and rightly--it's probably the best dish in the restaurant: sensationally fresh mixed greens such as frisee , butter lettuce and radicchio tossed with a genuinely subtle rice wine vinaigrette along with peanuts, crisped spaghettini and wonderfully tender strips of sesame chicken. I don't taste any lime, but this salad is terrific.

Rustica Mediterranean is another good one. It's chopped cucumbers, roasted peppers, black olives, sweet onions and hunks of crusty bread, in a light olive oil dressing perfumed with rosemary.

The pizzas and pastas have their ups and downs. Zebra panzotti is an eye-catcher but not much else. Yes, I mean those pasta pillows striped black and yellow and filled with ricotta and spinach. They're edible art, if you will--pity they have so little flavor. Wild mushroom tortelloni are the opposite, not pretty to look at but good to eat. They have real bite and intense flavor in a brandy, cream and tomato sauce, and the portion is enormous.

People are crazy for these wood-fired pizzas, but I'd stop just short of that assessment. The crust is smoky, designer-slim and delicious, and there is an array of imaginative toppings. Dig into profumata (smoked chicken with crispy bits of pancetta , caramelized onions and Fontina cheese) or crosta all'aglio (a garlic-crusted pizza with grilled zucchini and roasted eggplant) or sudista (made with blackened chorizo, cilantro and a green chile salsa), and you're sure to be pleased. Now, if the chefs could only be a little more judicious with this gooey cheese.

There are no complaints about the dolci that peek out at you from a glass case, though. They're all great. Apple caramel mousse is a sensation; it's the one lined with ladyfingers. Then there's strawberry Grand Marnier, a genoise cake filled with strawberry mousse and fresh berries. Chocolate rum is rich and chocolaty, more genoise with a light rum flavor.

Hey, stop fighting over the desserts. I know that's not part of the concept.

Suggested dishes: antipasto Milano, $7.95; Oriental lime chicken salad, $7.95; wild mushroom tortelloni, $9.50; pizza profumata , $7.95; apple caramel mousse, $4.50.

Milano's Italian Kitchen, 21550 Oxnard St., Woodland Hills. Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 to 10 p.m. Sundays. Parking in adjacent structure, with validation. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, $20 to $35. (818) 340-8400.

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