It's Not Rex, but Viva Vincenti

Stepping into 4-month-old Vincenti Ristorante to wait at the sleek marble bar, I find it hard to believe this sophisticated contemporary restaurant is in Brentwood, especially on a sleepy stretch of San Vicente well beyond the bright lights of Starbucks and Toscana. The table in the private dining room to the right of the entrance is set for a party, a bowl of lemons adding a welcoming touch. Straight ahead and down a few steps is the main dining room of burnished aubergine walls and curvaceous high-sided booths. Stationed in front of the wood-fired rotisserie, Gino Angelini, the chef wearing a tall white hat and a scarf, keeps his eye on the fish and meats cooking there and on the activity in the glassed-in kitchen beyond.

The last chef at Rex Il Ristorante, Angelini is executive chef and partner here with Maureen Vincenti, wife of the late Mauro Vincenti, who owned Rex. Vincenti couldn't be more different from the stately grandeur of Rex. It's hip, urban, more like frenetic Milan than Rome, which was Mauro's hometown.

Angelini is a terrific cook and we're lucky to have him in Los Angeles. When Vin-centi opened in Octo-ber, he was hampered by an unseasoned kitchen staff and an unwieldy, overambitious menu. He has since supplemented the staff with young cooks from Italy and an experienced pastry and pasta chef. And with Nicol Mastronardi, who's been at Vincenti from the start, as chef di cucina, Angelini now has an able team.

Regrettably, he has pared down the original, much more exciting menu, dropping some of my favorite dishes in the process. I can still taste his wonderfully earthy tripe, slowly simmered with tomato and served with a delicate Parmesan flan. And the crostino of creamy polenta fried to a golden brown and paired with paper-thin slices of guanciale, Angelini's house-cured pork jowl. I suspect the changes reflect what this neighborhood crowd will and will not eat. There are still plenty of good dishes, but the most interesting appear as specials or as part of the four- or five-course tasting menu.

One night, several friends and I savor a specially prepared menu that includes a sheaf of burgundy-streaked radicchio from Treviso sashed with a strip of guanciale. The sweet, crisped pork enhances the bitterness of the grilled radicchio. Another perfect pairing is a molded tortino (little cake) of translucent diced cardoon, a vegetable related to the artichoke that looks like a gigantic white celery stalk, swathed in a ribbon of aged aceto balsamico. I love the vinegar's dark sweetness against the winter taste of the cardi. Angelini also sends out a salad of marvelously flavorful rabbit and sliced celery strewn with garnet pomegranate seeds, and a dish he used to cook at Rex, pigeon stuffed with ruffled pale and dark cabbage.

From the regular menu, I suggest starting with prosciutto di Langhirano, a cured Italian ham that's as distinguished as a single cru Barbaresco; it's cut in transparent slices, folded like the petals of a flower and garnished with shavings of good aged Parmigiano. Delicate and light fried calamari is presented with matchsticks of fried zucchini and a tartar sauce stained green with fragrant fresh herbs. Seared scallops are a perennial on most L.A. menus, and Angelini's version comes in a haunting tomato-mint sauce.

That other L.A. favorite, risotto, may surprise you with its lightness. The arborio rice is cooked in a savory broth with shredded fresh artichokes and mint, plus a touch of pecorino (aged sheep's milk cheese) stirred in at the end. Gnocchi are the real thing, bearing the imprint of fork tines, the better to hold that beguiling ragu of pigeon. As for pasta, I've had some wonderful ones--off the menu: cappelletti stuffed with capon breast and sauced in an emulsion of Parmigiano and cream; handmade garganelli (rolled squares of pasta dough) with sea snails; and, on the menu, a fabulous strozzaprette (short spiraled ropes of pasta) in a fiery lobster sauce.

Angelini takes a whole fish (for two)--striped bass, red snapper, arctic char, for example--seasons it with olive oil and herbs and sets it twirling on a special rack in front of the glowing embers. For one person, he roasts a Dover sole with bread crumbs, garlic and parsley.

On a rainy, wind-swept night, the homemade pork sausage with cabbage and green lentils fortifies in all the right ways. Set down in an artichoke puree, sweetbreads have a luscious, custardy texture, a marvelous foil to the aged aceto balsamico. Meat-lovers can always order the misto di carni, mixed roasted meats redolent of wood smoke. Though it usually includes beef, lamb, pork and chicken carved table-side, the selection could be more interesting. (Personally, I'd like to see more game birds.)

Vincenti does make a few missteps. The T-bone from the wood-burning oven isn't as good as I'd hoped: Sliced off the bone, it comes with miniature onion rings and bell peppers in a vinegar and honey sauce. And one night, Angelini serves penne with a side of seared foie gras, an unfortunate match. The wine list is not only flawed for its unimaginative choices, but also because some wines from the more famous Italian producers are wildly overpriced. The 1990 Barolo "Sperss" from Angelo Gaja costs $280. And Felsina's excellent 1993 Chianti Classico riserva is $48.

Desserts here aren't particularly exciting (most Italians prefer to have fresh fruit). I do like the semifreddi, though, especially the frozen zabaglione with mandarin orange sauce and the chilly version of Sicilian cassata studded with pistachios, hazelnuts and candied fruit. Many of the sorbetti, however, such as the green apple, would be greatly improved by reducing the sugar.

Despite its shortcomings, Vincenti is a thrilling new restaurant. If Angelini gives himself time to find his audience, Vincenti has every chance of being a great restaurant. When he's cooking his best, he turns out delicious and original food based on tradition. That's the difference between his food and that of some younger chefs. It's utterly true to Italian cuisine. And few Italian restaurants in America come close to achieving that kind of authenticity.

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VINCENTI RISTORANTE

CUISINE: Italian. AMBIENCE: Contemporary restaurant with wood-burning rotisserie and oven. BEST DISHES: prosciutto di Langhirano; grilled scallops with tomato-mint sauce; gnocchi with pigeon rag, mixed meats and whole fish from the rotisserie. WINE PICK: 1993 Felsina Chianti Classico riserva, Tuscany. FACTS: 11930 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 207-0127. Dinner Tuesday through Sunday; lunch Friday. Antipasti, $6.50 to $15; primi, $7.50 to $18; secondi, $17 to $30. Corkage $15. Valet parking.

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