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Chef Is Singing for Your Supper

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At Da Bianca Trattoria, the food tastes better if you hear the chef singing.

That’s practically all the time. Chef Enrico Giordano is Neapolitan, and no, Pavarotti won’t be looking over his shoulder any time soon. But watch Giordano handling pastas and manning saucepans in his spotless open kitchen, and you recognize a man who clearly is in love with cooking.

This simple, white tablecloth cafe is on the far, or eastern, side of Orange Hill. One pleasant aspect of this square, unembellished dining room is an abundance of ambient light. Most of the dining room is framed by ceiling-high panoramic windows, which somehow extend the limited space.

Da Bianca Trattoria is the essence of an unpretentious neighborhood restaurant. The only decor to speak of is provided by glass jars filled with dried pasta and cans of extra virgin olive oil, which are displayed on a huge rack above the kitchen counter.

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That famous trattoria atmosphere, meanwhile, is helped along by a team of authentic Italian waiters. These are two men with power ponytails, who are both contrary in the classic table-side manner. (Say “Thank you” in English, and they respond with a suavely uttered “Prego.” Air out your Italian with “grazie,” and they slide out an austere-sounding “You’re welcome.”)

Giordano’s cooking style is slanted toward southern Italy, but the menu is loaded with dishes from all over the Italian peninsula. Risotto, for instance, a distinctly northern dish, is cooked to order and done to a chewy perfection. Pollo alla griglia, pounded grilled chicken with fresh herbs and a dollop of shiny green pesto, is a blissful marriage of Tuscany and Liguria, two provinces very far from the chef’s home turf.

I wouldn’t advise eating many of the complimentary Parmesan encrusted hunks of Italian bread. There are many good primi to sample, and the bread is unmercifully filling. A terrific calamari fritti comes in an enormous basket, along with a deliciously spicy marinara sauce. This is as light and crisp a fried calamari as I’ve tasted, and the batter has the crunch of a good Japanese tempura.

Soft grilled polenta is topped with a rich mushroom and red wine sauce, and for once, the cornmeal triangles are not mealy or mushy. Carpaccio di manzo, however, makes a less-compelling impression. The thinly sliced rounds of red, raw beef are properly fresh and tender, but the garnish has too many capers, a handful of tasteless mushrooms and no olive oil to moisten the meat. My dish, it turns out, was bone dry when it arrived at the table.

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There are two full pages of pasta on Da Bianca Trattoria’s menu, and nearly every one I tried was intelligently conceived and properly al dente. The chef extrudes his own dough for ravioli, lasagna, tortellini and occasionally, the long, thin noodle called tagliatelle. The majority of the menu’s pastas, though, are made by Barilla, an Italian import.

That’s not a problem. In the hands of a skilled chef, a dried pasta can be every bit as good as a fresh one. Giordano makes a wonderful perciatelli all’ amatriciana, thick tube pasta with pancetta, chunky tomato, black pepper and imported Parmesan cheese. And his orecchiette capricciose, composed of an ear-shaped pasta first boiled and then sauteed in olive oil with fresh broccoli, artichoke hearts and minced chicken, is about as satisfying a pasta dish as I’ve had this year.

Most of Da Bianca’s pastas are available as half orders, served in ample porcelain bowls, or in full orders, on giant, family-sized platters. The delicious homemade ravioli have an al dente bite, and a filling based on a rich veal ragu.

Tortellini alla boscaiola, when the kitchen has them, are bite-sized, doughnut-shaped noodles stuffed with cheese, in a swooningly rich cream sauce laced with ham, mushrooms and peas.

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Main dishes, secondi on this menu, are confined to the back page, but the best ones are found on a specials blackboard. One evening, the blackboard advertised agnello, which turned out to be a wonderfully generous, beautifully blackened rack of lamb, four huge chops in a subtle balsamic vinaigrette. Another night, the blackboard’s star dish was a textbook risotto, gently stirred arborio rice mixed with artichoke, chicken and peas.

The menu secondi are all right but perhaps a bit perfunctory. Most of them are overly familiar veal and chicken dishes, save the fine pollo alla griglia described before. Both veal and chicken parmigiana are bready, and fairly smothered with gooey melted cheese. There is also a workmanlike take on both veal and chicken piccata, both heavy on lemon and capers. All the main dishes come on platters with sides of pasta and fresh mixed vegetables, so that no one has to leave hungry.

The chef makes most of the desserts. The house tiramisu is light and mild, a rectangle of ladyfingers, powdered chocolate and a particularly frothy whipped mascarpone. He also bakes a nice ricotta cheesecake, about as airy a version as you’ll find anywhere.

Da Bianca’s Trattoria’s good house espresso and a small but carefully chosen list of imported Chiantis and boutique Italian wines help everything go down easily. The opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings, but this is a restaurant, not an opera house, so if music be the food of love, play on.

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Da Bianca Trattoria is moderate to expensive. Antipasti are $6 to $10. Primi piatti are $9 to $15. Secondi piatti are $15 to $23.

BE THERE

Da Bianca Trattoria, 7448 E. Chapman Ave., Orange. (714) 289-1508. Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5-10 p.m. daily. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.


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