CURIOUS GORGE

Nick's Cuisine of Southern Europe, 3717 East Indian School, 955-5225. Hours: 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.

Back in ninth grade, Mr. Brodsky assigned our English class Charles Dickens' mammoth novel David Copperfield. Although we had three weeks' notice, I didn't bother picking up the book until the day before our term-paper deadline. Five minutes after I started reading, I knew I'd never get through it. My stomach ached with despair.

I got the same sinking feeling, on a recent Thursday night, looking at the menu at Nick's Cuisine of Southern Europe. Even an Evelyn Wood speed-reading graduate couldn't have gotten through it before Friday breakfast. It's a good two feet long, almost as wide, and just a bit shorter than A Tale of Two Cities. Cliff's Notes ought to add it to its inventory. I counted 38 appetizers (not including six kinds of stuffed potato skins and five versions of chicken wings), 13 salads and an astonishing 71 main-dish choices. The menu lists 80 pizza toppings, including sauerkraut, figs and oysters. After the 38 dessert listings comes a staggering announcement that there are "many more to come." I wanted to scan the burgers, calzones, subs, pita specialties and breakfast items, but I promised my 9-year-old I'd be home before she finished law school.

Nick's is a pleasant place to do your reading. Newly installed in its third Valley home, it features Mexican tile floors, gleaming stucco walls and obligatory posters of the whitewashed southern Mediterranean. Neatly stacked shelves of imported goodies line the entryway.

No "less is more" culinary philosophy from this kitchen. Portions here are firmly rooted in practical Old World wisdom: "More is good, and a whole lot more is even better."

The seafood pastry appetizer delivered a huge piece of puff pastry groaning under the combined weight of onions, tomatoes, garlic, feta cheese, artichokes and, unfortunately, those tiny, tasteless shrimp that come about 1,000 to a pound. I wish there hadn't been quite so much sauce ladled on, either, because the wonderful puff pastry quickly turned soggy. But even though the execution fell short of the concept, it was an intriguingly tasty start.

Meals come with soup or salad, along with buttery garlic bread. The baked provolone soup was outstanding, pungently flavored with spinach, onions, grated carrot and provolone cheese. Lots of olives and a thick, feta-cheese dressing rescued the salad of iceberg lettuce. The main dishes were enormous, and we detected a certain pattern of excess emerging. My wife had the goat shrimp, a house specialty. These were without question the largest shrimp I've ever seen. This is what shrimp would look like, I imagine, if they pumped iron and took steroids. Four of these monsters get saut‚ed in olive oil, garlic and lemon, wrapped in a crisp slab of bacon, and sprinkled with feta and sun-dried tomatoes. It's all set down on a bed of pasta and a delightful mix of zucchini and red pepper. It's a daunting platter, so eye-catching that it's hard to concentrate on how good it all actually tastes.

Veal melitzana seemed to have large quantities of all my favorite ingredients except hot-fudge sauce: two thin, tender pieces of breaded veal stuffed with a plateful of eggplant, artichokes and slivers of garlic in a chunky tomato sauce. But the dish was vastly overseasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. And again, a heavy hand with the sauce turned the breaded veal into a glutinous bog.

A few days later, we came back and sampled the pizza and the calzone, each geared to the hearty appetite.

The spanaki calzone, crammed with spinach, feta, ricotta, mozzarella and provolone, is large enough to serve as a spare bedroom. But too much marinara sauce masked some of the flavor.

The pizzas, though, have no shortcomings. The plain, 12-inch cheese pizza is a bargain at $5.95, with tons of cheese and a crisp, chewy crust. We picked hearts of palm and artichoke hearts for our large, two-item pizza, which supported a generous-enough serving of these expensive treats to satisfy even my craving.

Nick's homemade desserts will make you regret you had no room left for them. The fig berry pie is fabulous--a buttery crust enfolding berries, figs and intense hunks of dark chocolate. It's a fantastic combination.

Almost as good was the creamy cinnamon-stick cake, a cheesecake dotted with walnuts and pecans and drizzled with cinnamon syrup. And if you're not counting calories, don't pass up Final Addiction, a rich chestnut cake with dark and white chocolate laced with coffee. Figure on at least three cups of coffee per dessert. A chef bold enough to offer such an extensive menu clearly has no lack of self-confidence. So don't bother asking Nick Ligidakis to accommodate your tastes or whims. "Years of work," he says on the menu, and "endless days of experimenting have gone on in order to perfect the tastes of each and every item." If you want it your way, go to Burger King. Nick decrees, "We simply are not going to do it."

Fair enough. But how about smaller portions, so we can taste more of the bill of fare? I'd rather have two $4.50 appetizers than one at $8.95. Give us smaller main dishes, charge a bit less and we'll make up for it with dessert.

Friendly service, dizzying variety and heaps of food make Nick's an appealing place. Open til 1 a.m. every night, it's an especially good late-night stop for everyone except slow readers and the chronically indecisive. Mike's Golden Crust, 8806 North 43rd Avenue, Glendale, 435-1946. Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday through Monday, 4 to 9 p.m.

Imagine serving dinner to 30 friends in a New York studio apartment and you'll have an idea of the ambiance at this unpretentious, BYOB Glendale eating spot.

There are nine tables covered with oilcloth, some posters on the wall, and a high-powered air conditioner cooling things off. Behind the small pastry case at the back, you can peer into the bustling kitchen.

For the past six months, Mike, a veteran of Tommy Tomaso's, has been living the American dream: running his own place, with impossibly long and hard hours, aided by two sons. By 7 p.m. on a summer Friday night, the dream is alive. The place is full, and they're turning away customers.

What's the attraction? Solid, occasionally outstanding southern European fare at very reasonable rates. You get plenty of bang for your buck. My oldest kid, like her old man, adores linguini with white clam sauce. Mike's version comes in a big bowl, smothered with lots of clams, olive oil and garlic. It's not fancy, but it's fragrant and filling.

The other kid prefers cheesy pastas drenched in tomato sauce. Her eyes lighted up at the manicotti marinara, pasta tubes filled with ricotta, provolone and fontina, topped with baked mozzarella and marinara sauce. Even though she knows there's no such thing as a free dinner, she was extraordinarily reluctant to pass any of her dish over my way. But a few soft, pleading words, some rational discussion about the nature of my work, and the threat of severe bodily harm yielded me a few grudging bites. But that was all I got, because she quickly licked the plate clean. My wife looked up from her dish and muttered something about the fruit not falling far from the tree. I reacted maturely by claiming a significant share of her terrific four-cheese lasagna. Not stuffed between thick layers of pasta, as is usual, the ingredients came heaped on top: chicken strips, roasted red peppers, mozzarella, feta and ricotta cheese, baked with a light Parmesan cheese crust. It's wonderfully creamy, and smack-your-lips tasty.

I ordered chicken Vesuviana, at $6.25 about the most expensive dinner item on the menu. It's lightly breaded chicken breast with eggplant and mozzarella, and a winning alternative if you're not in the mood for pasta.

Mike also does pizza, and he was doing land-office takeout business. His Greek Isles specialty showed us why. It had the taste of the sea, and no wonder--it was jam-packed with shrimp, calamari, scallops, scungilli and clams.

A note of caution: Do not eat this pizza around your cat, unless you enjoy being serenaded with plaintive howls. Surprisingly, the only routinely ordinary dish we sampled was the gyro sandwich. The thick pita held nothing more than a couple of tomato wedges and unmemorable thin slices of meat.

Mike's desserts are all homemade, and he supplements his business by wholesaling them to other restaurants.

I had low expectations for the tiramisu, a complex dessert usually found in fancy places selling for five or six dollars. But Mike's $2.25 version is the first decent, reasonably priced tiramisu I've had, with lots of creamy (and expensive) mascarpone cheese. The eclairs, too, were fresh, buttery and loaded with a distinctive, rich, custardy filling.

Judging from the crowds and ringing telephone, Mike will be looking for larger digs shortly. So get here soon, before you have to subsidize more square feet, arty decor and nonfamily help.

THE ABORTION SURVEY... v9-02-92

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