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DELICIOUS BY DESIGN SURE, AMBIENCE IS NICE.BUT CAN IT REALLY MAKE YOUR MEAL TASTE BETTER

"Iknow what to do with the flowers, but what do you want me to do with the sleigh?" the bewildered delivery guy asks Paul LaMorticella as he leaves the designer's office. The guy pauses.

"And I need to know what to do with the reindeer lamps, too."

The driver is carrying these items to LaMorticella's latest completed restaurant project, the very hot Harry's Harbour Place Grille on Niagara Street.

And these challenges are just a hint of what's to come.

Soon he'll have to find a place at Harry's to store 6 million golden fairy lights -- that's the actual number, and it's the entire production of a plant in California. The lights will be used to produce "a sort of pseudo-Tavern on the Green effect," LaMorticella explains, referring to the well-known restaurant in Manhattan's Central Park.

Not to mention that 7,000 pheasant feathers will have to be temporarily installed somewhere. ("Very Ralph Lauren," LaMorticella says.)

Welcome to the business of upscale restaurants, 1997.

It's not just the food that counts in a fine-dining restaurant these days. And it's not just the decor. Or the lighting. Or the flowers. Or the uniforms of the staff.

It's all of the above.

Everything has to work together to make a Package, with a capital P.

That's the LaMorticella theory, anyway, and both the restaurant owners and the public seem to agree with him.

"If you ask me what's most important in a restaurant, cuisine or ambience, isn't it a shame that I've got to say it's 5 0/5 0?" asks Henry Gorino of Oliver's, who's a real fan of LaMorticella.

"I wish I didn't have to say that, because then I wouldn't have had to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars we spent on redecoration," he laughs.

At age 44, Paul LaMorticella is one of the most renowned restaurant designers in the area. His work can be found in luxury eating places like Oliver's, Siena and the newly redecorated second floor of Sequoia. The new Park Lane and soon-to-be-redecorated Pranzo are on his drawing board.

"I'm having my best year," he says modestly. "I'm becoming more and more restaurant-oriented, although over 80 percent of my business is still residential. I'm still learning."

But LaMorticella is not above looking up gleefully as he opens a package of tile samples from a prominent New York City firm that doesn't usually mess with out-of-Manhattan designers.

"I'm getting more clout," he grins.

LaMorticella was trained at Buffalo State College and Niagara County Community College. He spent time constructing memorable displays for the late L.L. Berger's Bath Shop, and he worked with Florence Cooper Inc. Still, he claims he's largely self-taught, getting many of his ideas, he says, from traveling.

"I think I've hit every top restaurant in every city," he says. He visited the new Le Cirque restaurant twice on a recent visit to New York City.

"For you, the food may be more important," he says to The News' restaurant and food reporter. "But to me it's the design."

That's really oversimplifying, because LaMorticella believes that every aspect of a restaurant matters. Traffic flow, he says, has to be considered, and so does the nearness of the tables to the kitchen. Nobody wants to eat cold food.

"You have to think about sound -- that's a problem we're still working on at Harry's. And lighting.

"I don't like bright restaurants. Everyone has to look good." For that reason, LaMorticella is proud of the lighting he created at Siena, a structure that was once a drive-in bank.

"We just used yellow fluorescent bug lights covered by muslin to diffuse them and copper laces in the muslin to provide balance. Then we brought in some onyx stone from Puerto Vallarta for the bar and lit it from underneath." The effect is glamorous.

LaMorticella also mentions the mural painted by artist Mark Di Vincenzo on the back wall. It adds drama, he points out, as do the banners on the ceiling.

"We didn't want to do the Italian restaurant grape deal," he explains.

Though every restaurant LaMorticella is involved with looks different, there are a few ideas he likes to incorporate whenever possible.

One is the feeling of being able to gaze from room to room. "I like to design in layers," he says, "so that people can be seen in steps." It's also important to give the customers something to look at, because "most good restaurants take time to bring the food out."

For the same reason, he feels that people have to be comfortable -- "I pad every table edge" -- and to give the feeling of luxury.

"At Harry's, the tables may be topped with paper but they are lined with linen. At Sequoia we used great big soup bowls and heavy silver."

Flowers also play a role. LaMorticella likes to do the flower arrangements for his customers every week and to make them lavish.

"In New York City," he points out, "top restaurateurs spend about $1,000 a week on flowers. In Buffalo, they can spend $300 to $500."

If LaMorticella had his way, decor would change every season. "A restaurant shouldn't be a finished design. It should switch flowers, china, even the apparel of the waiting staff," he says. "After all, restaurants get the same customers every single week."

Decor also affects how customers enjoy the food, even if they don't realize it, Oliver's Henry Gorino believes. "Michael Andrzejewski has been cooking wonderful food here for many years. But after our redecoration, people actually asked us if we got a new chef."

Of course, restaurateurs who decorate their own restaurants are tuned into decor, also.

"I keep having this awful dream," says Mark Goldman of the Calumet on Chippewa. "I'm giving a private party in this god-awful room and I keep saying to myself, 'How you could you possibly let people into this terrible place?' "

The biggest decorating problem Goldman faced with the Calumet, he says, was to give a sense of intimacy when the space wasn't needed for a show. Solution? "We added color and warmth andpulled the tables close to the bar."

Now Goldman is busy designing his new 1937 art deco diner that will open in spring and seat 60 to 70 people interested in eating comfort food. The decor has to reflect that, he believes. It also has to look attractive.

"Sometimes," he says, "I think customers would just as soon choke on their food as eat in an ugly place."

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