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The Color of Flavor : Terra Cotta Bistro brings an original touch to familiar Italian dishes.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It must have been the word “bistro.” I was expecting Terra Cotta Bistro to be a cozy French hideaway, probably of the Provencal persuasion, but I found myself in a boisterous Italian dinner house, trying to hear a cocktail pianist’s interpretation of “Clair de Lune” (well, that part was French) above the din.

The good news: It was not just another suburban Italian restaurant. It may have the look--salmon-colored walls with beige trim, overhead fans, vinyl booths and a generous complement of plants, both real and artificial--but chef Teresa Porto adds many an original touch to familiar dishes.

She turns out to be a protege of TV Food Network stars Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (“Too Hot Tamales”). Porto used to work for them at City Restaurant in Los Angeles. City was one of the most eclectic restaurants ever, a place where the flavors of Thailand, India and Guatemala met the cooking techniques of France, Italy and California.

Fast forward to La Habra a little more than a year ago. The future Terra Cotta Bistro was struggling along as Lascari’s Trattoria in this community rather sparsely served with upscale restaurants. Then-owner Sandy Kossky had the good sense to bring in Porto and to change the restaurant’s name (the exterior of the building is the color of a terra cotta vase). Business immediately took a sharp upturn.

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I’d start a meal here with one of the pizzas, baked in an oak-burning oven and with exotic toppings befitting either a bistro or a trattoria. Apple, walnut and Gorgonzola may sound like a weird mix to put on pizza, but the combination is ingenious. The slightly candied walnuts stand up nicely to pungent hunks of crumbled Gorgonzola, and the thin apple slices add color, texture and tartness.

Thai chicken pizza is another good one, a savory pie topped with sesame seeds, roasted peppers, basil, chunks of chicken breast and a sprinkle of crushed peanuts. Here the peanuts don’t overwhelm the other ingredients the way they do in the sweet, gummy sort of Thai chicken pizza popularized by California Pizza Kitchen.

I’m also fond of the bruschetta. You get two slices of toasted Italian bread with the usual tomato and parsley topping, but the plate also contains two slices smeared with a tapenade-like olive paste, and another pair spread with sweet roasted garlic puree.

The eggplant terrine consists of layers of goat cheese and grilled eggplant and zucchini slices, all on a mild red pepper aioli. Antipasto (for two) is constructed around more grilled eggplant, plus roasted peppers, a pile of vinegar-marinated vegetables, Sicilian black olives and about a dozen slices of Genoa salami and provolone cheese.

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The usual soup is a one-dimensional tomato-vegetable “minestrone” lacking both beans and pasta. But you may find a terrific soupe du jour, such as carrot ginger soup. I could have sworn I was in a Thai restaurant when I tasted this thick potage, which was highly aromatic from fresh ginger.

The Caesar salad could use the carrot soup’s assertiveness. It’s a credible version with good greens and fat croutons, but the creamy, lemony dressing needs more bite.

Porto’s imagination isn’t nearly as evident in the later courses. The second page of the menu would make you think you’re in any old suburban Italian restaurant, which is a pity, the first page having been so successfully eccentric.

Not that the result is all bad.

The most impressive entree is the New York steak Florentine. OK, so it isn’t rubbed with rock salt and served with cannellini beans, as it would be in Florence; it’s a good, lean steak basted with garlic, olive oil and parsley, and a steal at $11.95.

Pepperoni penne does make interesting use of that spicy sausage, mostly familiar to us as a pizza topping, by slicing it razor-thin and combining it with chopped onions, tomatoes, garlic and a touch of cream as a topping for tubular penne pasta. An entree called spicy Southwest grill also uses penne, mixing it with charbroiled chicken, shrimp, vegetables and bits of Italian sausage. (I’d like it better without the pasty tomato sauce overdosed with cumin.)

There are no surprises in mezzo mezzo, a dish you could get just about anywhere. It’s spaghetti with meat sauce, a homemade meatball and a sweet Italian sausage. Veal Marsala is middling veal scallopini, neither tough nor tender, blanketed in a nondescript white sauce and garnished with sauteed mushrooms.

The desserts, mostly made on the premises, include a runny tiramisu, an even runnier creme bru^lee and a firm New York cheesecake. The star of the show is chocolate pecan tart, with its rich crust and intense chocolate filling.

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In short, this restaurant offers good food and good value, if not quite enough big-city cooking. (Er, make that City cooking.)

Terra Cotta Bistro is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.95 to $7.95. Pizzas are $5.95 to $9.95. Pastas are $5.95 to $13.95. Specialties are $8.95 to $15.95.

BE THERE

Terra Cotta Bistro, 1660 N. Beach Blvd., La Habra; (310) 690-0946. Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner, 4-9 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 4-10 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Visa, MasterCard and American Express.


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