The Gossiping Gourmet: Go from the top to the toe of Italy's boot

It seems like the vast majority of restaurants in Huntington Beach are in strip malls with generally unprepossessing exteriors. Such is the case with La Fontana, but once you step through the door, you find yourself in a warm, welcoming atmosphere created by the amusingly kitschy but somehow charming décor.

Tiny Christmas lights embedded in fake pine boughs are strung along the ceiling. The walls are decorated with trompe l'oeil murals of large, stone-framed windows, one looking out onto a fountain in a garden and several others with vistas of the sea. Cloth-covered tables, golden lighting and an open kitchen combine to make the space quite endearing. Drapery over the storefront windows separates you from the reality of Beach Boulevard. Of course, the fact that our waiter was a large, genial fellow with a fabulous Italian accent didn't hurt either.

Chef/owner Corrado Gianotti was born in Piedmont, Italy, but his cuisine ranges all over the boot from top to toe. On the last Tuesday of every month, he presents a $59, four-course prix fixe dinner, highlighting a different region each time.

Our meal began with the carciofi farciti alla Monfferina, or stuffed artichoke. We were puzzled about the "Monfferina" and discovered that it is a lively folk dance from Piedmont. The large, canned artichoke was stuffed with goat cheese, then lightly battered and deep-fried. It was presented on a bed of sliced and chopped tomatoes bathed in balsamic vinegar with sprigs of fresh rosemary as a garnish. The vinegar enlivened the winter tomatoes and provided a nice foil for the creamy stuffing. The rosemary left a lingering aftertaste of herb. The dish was quite good, but we would have preferred all that attention be given to a fresh artichoke.

We had wanted to try the millefoglie, a vegetarian appetizer described as a tower of eggplant, mushrooms, bell peppers, spinach and goat cheese, which sounded quite delicious and can be ordered as an entrée as well, but was not available because the chef said there was no good eggplant at the market that day.

Meat lovers might like the carpaccio alla Cipriani (Cipriani is often cited as the best restaurant in Venice). The preparation features paper-thin slices of raw beef tenderloin sprinkled with capers, olive oil and arugula and finished with shaved Parmesan.

We shared the house-made tagliatelle (narrow linguine) with duck ragu. Even the half portion was an entrée in itself. The ground duck did not have a particularly "ducky" flavor; it could have been beef or pork, but still made a very nice sauce that tasted like an excellent Bolognese.

The cioppino (seafood soup) also featured a lovely fresh tomato broth accented with oregano. The seafood mélange included some clams that were better than most, as well as tasty shrimp and good salmon. However, the mussels were just OK, and the mahi-mahi was overcooked.

Pork is always a popular entrée in Tuscany, and La Fontana serves arista alla Toscana, pork tenderloin with pancetta, garlic and fennel seeds accompanied by Parmesan risotto.

The duetto de carne misti is for those who can't make up their minds. It includes a chicken breast and Italian sausage in a balsamic reduction sauce, served over polenta.

House-made pear and blueberry tart had its ups and downs. The upside was the sweet, delicious pears mixed with berries in a richly flavored but light caramel sauce with creamy vanilla ice cream on the side, which we devoured. The downside was the inedible crust; the commercial puff pastry was unpuffed and so hard that it could not be cut with a knife. Elle tried to bite through it unsuccessfully. We mentioned it to our waiter, who immediately told the chef. He said the crust was not house-made and would speak to the company he'd bought it from. We were thanked for alerting them to the problem.

La Fontana is a warm and friendly neighborhood spot for Italian dining.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

La Fontana

Where: 18344 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach

When:

Dinner: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Lunch: By reservation only Tuesday through Sunday

Prices:

Appetizers: $7.50 to $10.95

Pasta: $13.95 to $19.95

Entrées: $17.95 to $21.50

Desserts: $6.50 to $8.95

Wine:

Bottles: $23 to $99

By the glass: $5.50 to $12.50

Corkage fee: $15 ($18 for champagne)

Information: (714) 841-0059

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