RESTAURANT REVIEW : Catching the Spirit of Italy : * The Ca' del Sole offers attractive wine and appetizer lists, but the pastas on the huge menu are hit-or-miss.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An evening at Ca' del Sole is drenched with the spirit of Italy, from the valet parking to your after-dinner shot of grappa. Yes, right from the valet parking. When we thanked our valet on handing over our keys, he instantly replied, " Prego! " and winked, in the true Italian style. What makes this great is that the valet was actually Salvadoran.

You'd never recognize North Hollywood's old Maison Robert--it's now a softly lit, luxurious restaurant of a style you can actually find in Italy. The walls are soft yellow brick, hung with unadorned pottery, framed photos of Venetian carnival masks and antique Italian playing cards (a particularly nice touch). Seating is mostly at elegantly upholstered booths or on richly hued wooden chairs. There is also a snazzy wooden bar where on busy evenings hungry diners often stand three deep to order Camparis while they wait for their tables.

Ca' del Sole belongs to the gifted Antonio Tommasi, who also runs the well-known restaurants Locanda Veneta, Ca' Brea and Il Moro on the other side of the hill. At times, when the service clicks and you've chosen a really fine dish, everything at Ca' del Sole is engaging.

But not always. Tommasi is a wonderful chef, but he's floating among four restaurants these days. This may explain why some dishes are lackluster.

Another problem may simply be that the menu, based on the cooking of Venice, is huge. One wonders how the kitchen can produce such a diversity of dishes well, and indeed, it may not be possible.

Still, order judiciously and you will probably become an instant fan. The appetizer list has a lot of attractive choices, many of which, so far as I know, appear for the first time on a Valley menu. Baccala di San Pietro alla Vincentina is a captivating fish hash made with John Dory, potatoes and capers, served with two rounds of perfectly grilled polenta.

Pomodori appassiti are even better: San Marzano tomatoes baked with a crust of garlic, oregano, olive oil and basil, accompanied by slices of prosciutto imported from Carpegna, Italy. Only polpettine di tonno stufate is an actual disappointment, though these rather insipid tuna cakes are nearly redeemed by a wonderfully delicious bed of sauteed lentils.

The pastas are more hit-or-miss, which is a shame, because they tend to look so good written down. Bigoli alla Ca' del Sole, actually a dish straight out of Venice, is made with a thick sort of spaghetti that might be confused with Japanese udon noodles, were it not for the topping: a generous mix of lobster, clams, mussels and crab. The sauce and seafood in this dish are both fine, but bigoli need to be cooked carefully. Mine were gummy.

Gemelli ai vegetali arrostiti , described as cuff-link shaped pasta with mixed vegetables, comes out even less appealing. The pasta is an oddball one, consisting of two strands twisted together; it's like eating a plate of gigantic DNA. Even if that doesn't bother you, there's the problem that the pasta is mixed with mushy beans and overcooked vegetables.

On the other hand, gnocchi and risotto--both notoriously hard to prepare right--are two shining stars on this pasta list. The bite-sized potato gnocchi, served in a delicate duck ragout, are feathery light and meltingly tender. And the risotto is impressively firm and grainy, cooked with lobster tail and perhaps even a slight overabundance of sliced porcini mushrooms.

There are also several meaty entrees. The best, by far, is stufato di anatra alla Veneta , a magnificent Venetian stewed duck. The kitchen marinates Barbary duck in red wine and serves it in a rich sauce based on aromatic herbs and wild berries. Like most of the meat dishes, it comes with good, garlicky steamed spinach and workmanlike roasted potatoes.

Chicken is a treat here too, served whole in a huge cast-iron skillet, juicy and redolent of lemon zest and rosemary. Osso buco, the classic braised veal shank, comes with soft polenta. A good free-range veal loin has fresh asparagus tips in place of spinach.

I'm not wild about any of the desserts. The rice pudding is mushy, the apple tart soggy; even the reasonably good pear tart tastes more like apple than pear. But I do like the fact that the restaurant serves a mean espresso, offers intelligently priced Italian wines and has a good selection of grappas and digestivi waiting for you in the bar after dinner.

And I wasn't let down when, on retrieving my car keys, I got a hearty arrivederci from the valet. As the Italian salutation implies, I will see these people again. And next time, I'll be expecting really big things.

WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Ca' del Sole, 4100 Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood.

Suggested dishes: Baccala di San Pietro alla Vincentina , $5.50; pomodori appassiti , $6.25; gnocchi al ragu di anatra , $7.95; risotto all'aragosta e porcini , $12.95; stufato di anatra alla Veneta , $10.50.

Hours: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5:30-11:30 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $34-$56. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards.

Call: (818) 985-4669.

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