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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Dependable Classics, With Devotion : Most of this Italian fare hits above the mark. Soups satisfy, the scampi is elegant and the gnocchi are soft and light.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every reviewer, crotchety from so much bad eating, carries his own acid tests: the simple dishes that chronically fail.

Why can no one, it seems, make good gnocchi? Why is the now-fashionable, ubiquitous Caesar salad generally so awful and rarely made with the simplicity and boldness it requires? Why is pasta so often overcooked, reduced to a flavorless mush that can’t hold sauce properly?

But every reviewer gets surprised now and then--a happy fact, no doubt, that makes up for everything. The surprises in this case come from Basilico, a relatively new restaurant tucked into a shopping center corner at Wood Ranch in Simi Valley.

Basilico is far from perfect. Some of the menu basics are decidedly lackluster. The service might, on a busy night, be harried and aloof. And it’s pricey.

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But Basilico also is one of only two or three restaurants in this region that handles a good number of the Italian classics with dependability, style and a devotion to prime ingredients--in a word, with perfection. That is no small feat.

Eliano Gamboni is that rare chef whose culinary authority gets fully and unself-consciously communicated on the plate, be it a strikingly authentic veal-based pasta Bolognese, a breathtakingly deep Roman stracciatella soup, a stellar plate of asparagus done as it would be, in browned butter, in Milan.

Do start with one of the soups, each a dignified nod to the highest Italian cooking tradition.

Minestrone alla Genovese ($4.50) is a dense vegetable array in light olive-oil-streaked chicken broth: simple, fragrant, richly satisfying, ladled from its own single-order saucepan. The stracciatella ($4.50) is remarkably bracing and memorable for it: fresh spinach leaves coated in grana Padano cheese and egg in a heady caramel-colored beef broth.

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Worthy appetizers include fried calamari ($8), air-light in the batter and ocean-sweet in the fish; and the simple caprese ($8), or fresh sweet mozzarella with thick tomato slices and fresh basil leaves. Peperoni arrosto ($8), in which roasted bell peppers, onions and tomatoes are topped with anchovies, gave glimmers of its lusty Mediterranean self but suffered from refrigerated ingredients clotted with clumps of gelled olive oil.

A special treat among starters, however, is scampi sulla Paglia ($10). Giant shrimp are lightly battered and flash-sauteed in lemon, garlic and butter and placed on a nest of straw-fried potatoes. The result is both rustic and elegant, subtle and bold.

To this reviewer’s astonishment, however, the Caesar salad bombed. Indeed, it was ordered twice--once at lunch and once at dinner--just to be sure. How a kitchen of this sophistication can dress Romaine in supermarket-like goop mystifies.

A house salad of baby lettuces with goat cheese, however, is the way to go on the greens front; it is dressed lightly in lemon and olive oil ($5.50). Then again, a delightful salad alternative is the asparagus Milanese ($7.50), vividly green and still firm and dusted in imported Parmesan.

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If the Caesar failed the acid test, the gnocchi--something far more difficult to do well--did not. In a simple dish of gnocchi al pomodoro ($9.50), the gnocchi, potato dumplings, were soft and light as pillows and dressed minimally in a near-severe tomato/olive oil/garlic compote. Gnocchi of this quality recalibrate the standard for security food, rendering many other pastas, and, heaven knows, macaroni and cheese, pedestrian and pointless.

Penne alla Gorgonzola ($9) suffered, surprisingly. Again, in a dish far simpler than the gnocchi, the tube noodles were overcooked and the cheese sauce without Gorgonzola’s characteristic pungency. But fettucine alla Bolognese ($12) was the real thing: firm noodles dressed in velvety, amber, fatless, fresh ground veal sauce.

Basilico sells a lot of pizza of the individual 12-inch variety. Surprises were in store here, as well. The uptown pizza--or Portofino ($10), in which a thin crust arrived smeared in pesto, garlic, Nicoise olives and goat cheese--was decadently delicious, original and satisfying.

But the acid test pizza--the classic Margherita ($8.50), or plain cheese and tomato--was an unforgivable bore: marred by a flavorless sauce and awash in less-than-fresh mozzarella.

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Entree specials of grilled swordfish ($16.50) and chicken Valdostana ($15.50) were handled with perfection. The sparklingly fresh fish was grill-seared on the outside, locking in tenderness and juice. The breast-meat chicken, pan-seared before topping with first-quality imported prosciutto and fresh mozzarella and a woodsy mushroom reduction sauce, was aggressively flavorsome and rewarding.

But it is worth noting that these dishes were taken in slightly downsized portions at lunch at prices that, plainly, were shockingly high and more in line with dinner pricing.

For dessert do not miss the Cassata Palermitana ($5), an extravagantly flavorsome slice of Sicilian vanilla ice cream with candied orange peels and almonds. Tiramisu ($5) wins runner-up status with Basilico’s own “moussed” version of Savoiardi biscuits dipped in espresso and covered in marscapone and Marsala cream.

Basilico’s wine list is small but wide-ranging. Pricing is neither a bargain nor a gouge, but some selections are better values than others. Orvietto Classico by Vaselli ($18) is a soft, floral white that suits much of Basilico’s cuisine, as does the sturdy red Dolcetto d’Alba Azelia ’91 ($20).

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More robust palates, however, might choose to pay full markup for the resonant Chianti Classico Badia a Coltibuono ’91 ($28).

House wines by the glass are perfectly good--a light Pinot Grigio and Bardolino--but, at $4.50, small in the pour.

Details

* WHAT: Basilico.

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* WHERE: 525 Country Club Drive, Simi Valley.

* WHEN: Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

* FYI: V, MC, AE. No checks. Reservations suggested. Dinner for two, food only: $40 to $75.


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