Some restaurants just have a magical, unanalyzable appeal. Take the Calabasas branch of Pasadena's Mi Piace.
Is it the cool beige stone floor, the rustic cross-beamed ceiling, the beautifully landscaped patio? The seductive antipasto display next to the open kitchen? The menu of upscale Italian favorites?
Whatever the reason, if you show up here without a reservation, you are going to wait, my friend. One evening, I had to rub my eyes; here were throngs of people cheerfully waiting for tables on a Monday--in 100-degree weather.
The service is snappy but erratic. Once I waited 20 minutes just for the antipasto platter (a good one--it included a stuffed artichoke, a roulade of salmon lightly scented with dill, an olive medley and pancetta-wrapped asparagus). Another time, the pasta course arrived before we'd finished our appetizers.
Many dishes are worth those glitches, though. The best starter, fritti misti, is crisp, extremely tender fried calamari rings, rock shrimp and onions piled on a plate lined with a curried aioli sauce. The calamari's secret, I've learned, is a buttermilk marinade.
This is one of the few Valley kitchens that understands risotto. I had a good one loaded with shrimp, garlic and mushrooms. It was moist and slightly chewy, and each bite exploded with the essence of fresh shrimp.
The pastas aren't for those who like their noodles on the soft side; they're al dente with a vengeance--my fettuccine Alfredo with peas was truly chewy. I prefer the tagliatelle Bolognese with its fairly classical veal ragu and the farfalle Genovese with green beans, sun-dried tomatoes, potatoes, basil and a touch of cream.
The Caesar salad is a whole heart of romaine served with a crisp wafer of melted Parmesan and a dressing pungent with cheese and anchovies. A wood-burning oven turns out good thin-crust pizzas with toppings such as margherita, four-cheese or prosciutto and arugula.
The menu abounds with solid but unspectacular secondi: a slab of roast salmon, a paillard of veal, a 20-ounce Angus steak, oven-roasted chicken. The portions are huge; most can be shared.
You'll probably kick yourself if you don't get one of the pastries--say, the crunchy hazelnut-crusted lemon meringue dacquoise, the multilayered Almond Roca cake, or my favorite, chocolate soup, a fudge-like fallen souffle.
Mi Piace, by the way, is Italian for "I like it," and judging by diners' ecstatic reactions, the name is no overstatement.
Mi Piace, 4799 Commons Way, Calabasas. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight. Parking in lot. Full bar. All major cards. Dinner for two, $33-$58. Suggested dishes: fritti misti, $8.95; Caesar salad, $8.95; farfalle Genovese, $9.95; pizza prosciutto e rucola, $11.50; pastries, $4.95. Call (818) 591-8822.