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Ugly Duckling Turns to a Swan

<i> S. Irene Virbila is The Times' restaurant critic. </i>

As the name of a restaurant, Ti Amo (I Love You) is sure to send Italians into fits of giggles. However, it’s no more silly than Ti Baccio (I Kiss You), Linguini Grill or Viva la Pasta--all names of real restaurants, I swear it.

Ti Amo, which opened at the beginning of April, is a romantic Italian place in South Laguna. Designer and co-owner Martine Hermansen spent months transforming an ugly duckling (the old La Monique space) into a Renaissance swan with swaths of rich fabrics, fragments of frescoes and a large trompe l’oeuil mural. Each of the unusual stone-like menus bears her rendition of a Michelangelo or Da Vinci drawing on the back.

According to co-owner Robert Castoro, the food is based on that of the Italian Renaissance, roughly the period from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Well, that may be stretching the Renaissance out by a century or two, but that’s the idea.

Chef Peter Higginson, who opened the original Zeppa in Newport Beach, rummaged through his collection of historical cookbooks for ideas and recipes. The small menu includes smoked goose carpaccio garnished with red onion rings, plump raisins, Parmesan shavings and a drizzle of citrus; a soup of spinach gnocchi in chicken broth; and delicious Sardinian ravioli with a stuffing of ricotta, eggplant, walnut and mint. There’s grilled chicken breast with walnuts, raisins and sage and medallions of lamb encrusted with pistachios. But I seriously doubt Michelangelo longed for seared rare ahi tuna back then. Most interesting are the house-smoked meats and game birds, and occasionally smoked venison or rack of lamb in a cherry-Barbaresco sauce.

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An added bonus: a sweet little wine list fairly priced, which includes an ’89 Barolo from Michele Chiarlo and an ’89 Vietti Barbaresco.

* Ti Amo Ristorante, 31727 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (714) 499-5350. Pasta and entrees $8.95 to $16.95.


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