Wood Oven Pizazz : A Bertolini's in O.C.--Let's Consider It a Compliment

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Our age is going to be remembered for, among other things, cineplexes and wood oven pizzas. So it's only natural for a restaurant such as Bertolini's to create an instant stir.

Bertolini's, making its California debut at the new Irvine Spectrum Entertainment Center, is a Las Vegas-based chain with restaurants in several parts of the country. It's certainly big-time in its hometown--at the Bertolini's in the Forum Shops at Caesars, I've seen people being wait-listed by the dozens. (The management says the gross sales for that restaurant exceeded $10 million last year.) The company is primed for an Olympic summer in Atlanta's trendy Phipps Plaza, and is also a fixture on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Enough said.

These locations put Irvine in august company, once again demonstrating how highly the nation's restaurant marketing consultants esteem Orange County. (Adjacent to Bertolini's is another California newcomer, a giant sports bar and restaurant called Champps. Sloppy Joe's, which recently opened the door a short distance away, comes to us from Florida.)

Parking at the entertainment center has been at a premium since day one, so it looks as if the experts and their predictions were right on. The complex's valet parking service is directly in front of Bertolini's, a real plum for the restaurant. Too bad Bertolini's front door doesn't face the cineplex, though. To get inside the restaurant from the valet area, you have to walk all the way around the outdoor patio, an awkward detour.

Once inside, you're bound to be impressed. Bertolini's bills itself as a humble trattoria, but the reality is grander and more elegant. The walls are paneled in dark wood, with a pair of colorful, cartoonish murals depicting Venice. The booths are striking and plush, upholstered in gold and black. Amber lamps suspended on long, crooked metal rods descend from the mustard-yellow ceiling to within arm's reach of the tables. Pillars rise from the floor like gigantic stalagmites.

I've been impressed with a few things I've eaten, let down by a few others. The pizzas, baked in that wood oven (which burns white oak) are pretty swell, especially patate arrostite, a delicious thin-crusted version topped with wood-roasted potatoes, rosemary and Gorgonzola. It really tastes like something you'd eat in the Tuscan countryside, and it gives you the idea that much of what you eat here will be unusual and rustic. That hope doesn't exactly pan out, but there are moments.

Begin any meal here with the terrific pizzetta Bertolini, a flat, crusty rosemary bread for $3.50. The bread comes piping hot and sprinkled with garlic and Parmesan. You might follow it with properly crunchy calamari fritti with a spicy tomato caper dipping sauce.

Prosciutto e mozzarella affumicata is handsome, but the idea needs some work. It's excellent prosciutto ham wrapped around strips of smoked mozzarella, the whole thing molded around field greens doused in sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. Individually, the flavors are all fine; together, they clash. (And that's not even counting the garnish: toasted Italian bread smeared with an unctuous, terribly sweet fig jam.)

Pasta e fagioli is a hearty pasta and bean soup the menu refers to as Tuscan, though a Roman would surely dispute that. I had high hopes for zuppa di pomodori e pane, a tomato and bread soup traditionally made with day-old bread. Unfortunately, it doesn't taste as if it was cooked for very long; the flavors aren't intense at all. Furthermore, the bread is soft and spongy, as though added at the last minute.

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The pastas are competent here, though in general they have too much sauce. I had asked that the kitchen not put too much sauce on my spaghetti carbonara, and my forgetful waitress, who had to that point forgotten mineral water and a pizza, had replied, "I don't think that will be a problem."

Nevertheless, it was. The pancetta, peas and tomatoes flavoring the pasta were fine, but there was a full inch of cream sullying the bottom of the dish.

Rigatoni ai telefono con salsiccia is my favorite among the pastas: large tubes with a generously meaty ragu of sausage and a bit of mozzarella melted over the top. Pass on fazzoletta con funghi, though--a handkerchief of fresh pasta stuffed with a soggy ricotta and spinach filling in an overly reduced wild mushroom sauce. Lasagna verde Bolognese is green noodles layered with both a meat and Bechamel sauce: heavy but tasty.

Among the main courses, try the supremo di pollo alla Romana. It's chicken breaded with a light Romano cheese flavoring in the crust, served with garlicky spinach and good roasted potatoes. The hearty Italian sausage plate is another good one. It features grilled sausage with polenta, stewed peppers, onions and tomatoes. With some of that rosemary flat bread, it's a very satisfying supper.

Don't dare depart without taking a crack at the superbly creamy gelati, the best Italian ice creams I've had in a long time. Flavors include hazelnut, amarena (brandied cherry chocolate), tiramisu, and stracciatella (chocolate chip).

If ice cream isn't your thing, try the fudgy chocolate cake with white chocolate sauce or the house cheesecake.

To start the meal, Bertolini's offers an array of specialty martinis such as the "pinetini"--pineapple-infused Finlandia vodka served straight up, ice cold. To finish, it has several coffee drinks. The Corleone, for instance: coffee with Galliano, Kahlua, Grand Marnier and brandy. Like much that goes on here, it is simply too much of a good thing.

Bertolini's is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.50 to $7.95, pastas and main courses are $8.50 to 14.95.

BERTOLINI'S

* 45 Fortune Drive, Irvine.

* (714) 450-0600.

* Lunch 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; dinner 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday, 5-11 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday.

* All major cards.

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