Using Their Noodles

Zita is not the most dramatic Italian restaurant Downtown — that designation belongs to Cicada. Nor is it the most au courant entry — Zucca holds that title. But when it comes to the all important food factor, Zita holds its own against both spots.

The two-year-old restaurant, named after owner Dominic Surprenant's daughter, and not, as some might think, an Italian noodle (that's ziti), is just off the Harbor Freeway at the foot of the TCW building. In real estate speak, Pantry adjacent. You've probably driven by a hundred times, not noticing the blue neon sign or the covered patio that fronts the trattoria.

Inside, the room's main feature is glass. There are expansive floor-to-ceiling windows and giant inverted pyramid-like tinted skylights. During the day, the tables, covered with cappuccino-colored linens, are flooded in soft light. Hi-tech halogen pin lights strung overhead and a few well-placed paintings add style. Toward the rear is a small deli counter popular with office workers who can be in and out, panini or Greek salad in hand, in mere minutes.

Executive chef Alexander Arevalo spent 10 years with the Farfalla restaurant group. So it's no wonder the 30-year-old cooks Italian with a sure hand. His pastas are textbook al dente, his risotto creamy and seductive but with just the right amount of bite. Never mind that Arevalo has never been to Italy. He could fool the Sopranos.

Given the quality of Arevalo's cooking, the bread could be better. The little bite size cubes are cute, but in flavor and texture, they bear an unfortunate resemblance to Wonderbread. Far better is the thin, warm, rosemary focaccia, basically a cheese-less, sauce-less pizza accented with fresh rosemary sprigs, salt and olive oil. The definition of simplicity, it is also impossibly addicting. You won't find it on the menu however. It's one of those insider things, so you have to ask.

The pretty insalata ai frutti di mare ($11/lunch, $12/dinner) is excellent: a generous plate of cool calamari rings and bite size chunks of tender octopus marinated in a bright, refreshing lime dressing, perfect during summer. Slivers of celery add color and crunch. A few mussels, clams and meaty shrimp, these last a bit overcooked, finish the presentation.

Carpaccio ($11/lunch, $12/dinner) is also good. The paper-thin slices of beef, red at the center, with a gentle sear around the edge, are fanned across the plate, covering its surface. Olive oil is drizzled over the whole, along with a scattering of capers. In the center is a hillock of fresh young arugula, accented with moons of red onion, parmesan shavings and sweet little yellow cherry tomatoes. I love the contrast of the bitter arugula, the robust beef licked in oil and the salty caper surprise.

While the starters are well executed, pasta is really the star of the show. Consider rigatoni ai tre funghi ($12.50/lunch, $13/dinner), short, squat pasta tubes with porcini, shiitake, and wild mushrooms tossed in a light pink sauce perfumed with truffle oil. (Add a little to your standard vinaigrette dressing at home and you'll become a believer.)

Mushrooms turn up again as an accent on handmade ravioli stuffed with broccoli rabe, also known as rapini ($11.75/lunch, $12.50/dinner). I expect the distinct bitterness of the underused green when I bite into the first little pocket. Instead, it's mild and mellow, thanks to creamy ricotta cheese.

Among the piatti forti, or main courses, are osso buco ($26) in a robust, aromatic gravy. The bonus is the risotto that serves as a bed for the veal shank. Stained a pretty saffron yellow, the rice is comfort food at its best, especially when spooned with some of that soulful sauce. This will certainly satisfy come those 40-degree December nights. But why wait?

Salmon ($18.75/lunch, $21.75/dinner) gets special treatment, too. Arevalo coats the filet in a fine mix of polenta and sesame seeds before it hits the sizzling pan. The result is a wonderful toasty crust that gives way to moist pink fish. The bottom of the filet is nicely crisped too. And one can't help but admire the prettily carved quenelle shaped zucchini served alongside.

On alternating Friday nights, and on the occasional Thursday night, Zita hosts musicians from the neighboring office building. They play mostly classic American rock (the Eagles for instance), which, while a bit dissonant with the Italian-ness of the place, is just fine. That said, for anyone seeking a relaxed, sophisticated dining experience, the amplified music is a bit, well, amplified.

Of course, if you're not into the music, there's plenty of distraction on the plate. Arevalo's bolognese is promising, and a slice of smoked salmon pizza with fresh dill and mascarpone cheese sounds very good, a bagel gone Italian. Add a nice selection of wines, many priced under 30 bucks, and two hours free parking, an all too rare offering Downtown, and it's clear why some Zita regulars would like to keep the restaurant their own little secret.

Sorry folks, il segreto is out.

Zita, at 825 James Wood Blvd. (West Ninth Street), is open Monday-Friday for lunch and Monday-Saturday for dinner, (213) 488-0400 or www.zitala.com.

(page 18, 8/5/02)

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