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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Sweet on Tastes of Italy : Despite some minor lapses, upscale Zucchero in Calabasas shows promise with its menu of thin-crusted pizzas, unusual pastas and savory meats and chicken.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!</i>

“I’m going to open 10 Zuccheros throughout the Southland,” boasted our waiter, “if everything goes according to plan.”

Let’s wish him the best. Zucchero--the Italian word for sugar --is the name of an attractively appointed Italian dinner house in Calabasas, and though it’s only 8 months old, I’m told business has been brisk. For now there is only one Zucchero, but who knows? Dreams of grandeur, at least, don’t require a credit application.

The concept does seem reasonably evolved. Decor is confidently attractive: an unfinished stone floor, an interestingly arched ceiling fashioned out of what appear to be laminated drop panels, a handsome hardwood bar, an elegant outdoor patio with trellised plants and white canvas umbrellas, even four majestic floor-to-ceiling columns dominating the main dining area. That’s enough to turn a strip-mall space into a makeshift Roman temple.

And Zucchero’s menu is pure and appealing, nearly perfect for the upscale Italophile West Valleyite. It’s a small but sure-footed menu that will make you hungry when you read it, with its thin-crusted pizzas topped with duck sausage or tuna, its elegant salads based on arugula and radicchio, such oddment pastas as culignones (Sardinian ravioli), followed by simple, satisfying piatti secondi such as marinated lamb chops or lightly breaded chicken Milanese.

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If only it were so simple.

Please don’t infer that Zucchero slips up big-time. It’s just that there are lapses, as in the friendly service, which could use a few obvious improvements. Expensive red wine imports, for instance, are served in standard-issue white wine glasses, which the waiter invariably fills to the brim as if this were jug wine that didn’t need room to breathe.

And some dishes come out of the kitchen on the cold side, or even undercooked. Milanese alla contadina , a veal chop pounded thin and lightly coated with bread crumbs, is one that’s apt to be room temperature by the time it reaches the table. Those culignones are thick pockets of dough with a tasty spinach and ricotta filling, and I concede that they must be tricky to prepare. But one loses sympathy fast when the dough tastes nearly raw despite having a piping hot filling.

I prefer sitting outside here, where the obvious inspiration is to order alfresco items like bruschetta. There might be a bit too much chopped tomato piled up on the oval cracker-crisp pizza bread used in this restaurant’s bruschetta , but the tomatoes themselves are fresh and red-ripe. The kitchen mixes in a heady amount of chopped basil, and I like the fact that you get to douse it with olive oil yourself.

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The pizzas are crisp, too, with intelligent toppings like prosciutto, bresaola (air-dried beef) and arugula (all three together on the model called la diabolica ), or a mix of duck sausage, mushroom and oregano (called oca e funghi , though oca literally means “goose”). You might overlook that the pizza chef is overly fond of cheese, but not that the duck sausage pizza gives you only one tiny chunk of sausage per slice. The cumin-spiked sausage is delicious, and you’ll want to eat more of it. Besides, the portion is downright stingy.

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Generally speaking, stinginess doesn’t characterize Zucchero’s portions, but this is also not a restaurant where you get an obscene amount of food on the plate. The pastas are just big enough to share for appetizers, or to satisfy a single diner as an entree.

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Rigatoni sorpresa is one not to miss, anyway, the chewy pasta tubes bathed in a subtle sauce of tomatoes, smoked bacon and a light touch of cream. Linguine saporite is another. With their flavorful topping of shrimp, arugula and chopped tomato, they’re great on a sultry West Valley evening.

I’m less convinced by the risotto ortolano . Yes, it’s made with arborio rice, and it looks beautiful with its medley of asparagus, peas and other vegetables, and the tasty vegetables snap when you bite in. Once the mushy rice grains are in your mouth, though, you can’t help but think about that hot cereal you passed on at breakfast.

The best of secondi (meat or fish dishes) is probably polletto in crosta , a deftly grilled Cornish game hen marinated in rosemary, garlic and fruity olive oil. At $17, agnello alle erbe fini is the most expensive thing on the menu, but it’s a fine dish of four tender chops from a lamb rack with a delicious accompaniment of carrots, spinach and roasted potatoes.

For dessert, try the delightful chocolate creme brulee , the frothy tiramisu or, best of all, the wonderful homemade lemon cheesecake, with a not-very-continental graham flour crust. I won’t make a prediction about the possibility of nine more Zuccheros to come, but I am fairly sure of this. A few minor modifications, and Zucchero could become a very good restaurant.

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Where and When

Location: Zucchero, 23663 Calabasas Road, Calabasas.

Suggested Dishes: Bruschetta , $3.50; pizza la diabolica , $8.50; rigatoni sorpresa , $7; polletto in crosta , $11; lemon cheesecake, $4.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday to Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

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Price: Dinner for two, $28 to $45. Full bar. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (818) 224-4905.


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