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Gilding the Pumpkin 

Wednesday, May 8 2002
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

oachim Splichal sure knows how to make a restaurant. He and his Patina Group now have five in downtown Los Angeles alone, as well as numerous others, including Patina and the Pinots in Hollywood, Studio City and Costa Mesa. But Zucca . . . Zucca . . . Zucca is surely the most beautiful of all. On the ground floor of an office building at the corner of Eighth and Figueroa, in a space that had sat empty for years, Zucca has the shape and majesty of a basilica, and the sophistication of downtown New York. Zucca is gorgeous, the Helen of Los Angeles restaurants; it has the face to launch a thousand SUVs.

Owner Splichal and his partner, Octavio Becerra, spent three weeks on a buying spree in Europe. They brought home gilt mirrors, antique paintings, entire floors -- the entryway is a charming antique stone mosaic with ripe vegetables in its designs; the dining-room floor is old French parquet, lifted up and flown here intact. The partners bought the doors to a French cathedral, and antique wall tiles from Italy, and four of the most graceful, heart-stopping Murano chandeliers on view in Los Angeles. Light glows as well from capacious alabaster urns presiding over the booths. Larger-than-life murals of a medieval Venetian costume ball -- the revelers in voluminous crow-black capes and frightening beaked masks -- add mystery and allure.

Splichal's staff is impeccable, from the gracious hostess and dignified managers to the friendly, knowledgeable waiters and adept busmen. They're a crew of company men and women, all proud of the new place. Our waitress offers a guided tour and shows us the restaurant's patio, with its Deco pillars and tilework, and a small private dining room whose long table and chairs and sideboards ooze European history.

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Ah, Zucca. We mustn't, indeed we can't, forget the name. Zucca. Zucca means pumpkin -- and the humble gourd can be found throughout the "Italian Country" menu, in a diminutive pizza slathered with pumpkin purée, cream of pumpkin soup, pumpkin-filled tortelloni, pumpkin gelato. Beyond the pumpkin, these dishes share a common richness and a density of texture, a richness and density that, in fact, pervades far too much of the menu.

The food is heavy here. There's no other word for it. The chef seems to make choices in exactly that direction. At lunch, prosciutto San Daniele, a pale, well-marbled, air-dried ham, is served with a soft Italian cheese called crescenza, which surpasses the prosciutto in richness; we yearned for something milder, less cloying, a fresh-milk mozzarella, perhaps. The beet salad is a tasty enough jumble, with fava beans, tomatoes, goat cheese and whole cloves of roasted garlic all thrown in. Frito misto is an assortment of delicious battered and fried vegetables with a few innocent-looking chunks of battered, fried preserved lemon providing eye-opening blasts of sweet sourness. A tower of crisp baked Parmesan sheets and bufala mozzarella is an amusing play of textures and flavors, but I wished the accompanying tomatoes were fresh, not marinated. Simpler in all these cases might be better.

Pastas are available in half orders for starters or middle courses; even splitting a half order, however, can add a lot of heft to a meal. The plump pumpkin tortelloni are as rich as gelati, with a hint of amaretto (they're bound with the crumbs of those little almond cookies). The house-made tagliatelle -- it looks like it's been cut with pinking shears -- is sauced with rock shrimp and fava-bean purée, but the great bean's subtlety is lost to added cream and tons of fresh garlic. The knockout pasta, available at lunch, is the gnochetti, coiled shells that hide a delicious sausage ragout in their folds, and are sprinkled with toasted fennel seeds and wisps of pecorino cheese: Yes, it's rich, but also an enormous comfort; this is what one should eat after a long, cleansing cry.

Invariably, after the sizable appetizer portions, we were full by the time our main courses arrived -- and they were duly heavy and huge. (Even wine by the glass comes in large portions, each kind in the same heavy here's-to-you-pal goblets. Only wine ordered by the bottle is served in its appropriate stemware.) The better part of a rabbit comes braised with rapini and a mixed mushroom sauce, with a side dish of roasted potatoes layered with fontina cheese. Plump, nicely roasted and seasoned quail rests on cheese-infused polenta encircled by an ill-matched sauce of tomatoes and wild mushrooms. Even the filet, a terrific piece of meat, is sauced and served with an indistinct ragout of artichokes and a carrot-potato mash. The rotisserie-twirled pork roast, a dense, tasty meat, is served in two unnecessarily thick slices -- protein enough for a family of four. The meat itself is lovely, but its sauce with chestnuts, pancetta and pearl onions is unforgettable, especially those chestnuts.

A panna cotta improved over the course of my visits from a thin caramelized custard to a truer white milk custard, although it is still too sweet and overjelled, and served with only a scant teaspoon of strawberry coulis. The zabaglione here is a wine-spiked custard sauce on berries that's been lightly (and wrongly, I feel) brûléed -- hit by a blowtorch. I have had some of the best chocolate desserts of my life at Splichal's tables, but the warm chocolate cake here is indistinguishable from so many others around town.

Zucca suggests that it's easier to transform a plain office building into a gorgeous museum piece than it is to transform a humble pumpkin into a fabulous plate of food. Chef Giancarlo Gottardo is clearly laboring in the kitchen, but he may be trying too hard. Where is that darn fairy godmother when you need her the most?

801 S. Figueroa St., downtown, (213) 614-7800. Lunch Mon.­Fri., dinner Mon.­Sat. Entrées $13.50­$26. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, MC, V.

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