Enzo's Place, 2139 Foothill Blvd., La Canada, (818) 957-2669. Open for lunch Wednesday-Friday; dinner nightly. Parking in lot. Beer and wine. Visa, MasterCard, American Express. Dinner for two, food only, $35-$55.
Whenever I tell people that I write about restaurants, the same question pops up. "How do you find the places you write about?" "Oh," I usually reply, "I just drive around."
That's not meant to be a smart answer, even if it is incomplete. There is more good, unheralded eating in greater Los Angeles than in any other American city. Even our remotest suburbs have their surprises, and a little exploration goes a long way.
A case in point is La Canada-Flintridge, which is snuggled into the foothills between Glendale and the San Gabriel Mountains. This town is so quiet that you can hear birds singing on the main street, Foothill Boulevard. It's hard to believe downtown Los Angeles is less than 20 miles away.
What first caught my eye about Enzo's Place was its post-modern sign in Melrose pink and gray. This wouldn't turn heads on the Westside, but here, sandwiched between a gas station and a Ralph's, the sign is a shock. I looked further and discovered a restaurant of great character.
The small, comfortable dining room is bathed in a warm glow. Tables and booths are covered in rose and pink, with fresh flowers sprinkled about. Owner Enzo Latini has further embellished the decor with art from his native Rome.
The owner may be Roman but his chef and longtime friend, Angelo Stringini, is a native of Turin. Stringini, who remains uncorrupted by the English language, was trained in the Grand Hotel in Rome. He was then executive chef to the Italian Olympic team for 20 years. This must explain the size of his portions.
The first evening I was drawn to the house antipasto, an array of cold vegetables displayed in the center of the dining room. They are splendidly colorful; eggplant, mushrooms, broccoli, zucchini, carrot and pimento, marinated in virgin olive oil with parsley, basil, oregano and chunky cloves of garlic. When the antipasto is eaten with the wonderful house bread, a brown, crusty loaf made of nothing more than flour, water, yeast and salt, these simple vegetables become almost rhapsodic.
To go with our appetizers, our waiter, Westside veteran Saverio Fildi, brought us some torta Pasqualina , a pastry filled with spinach, cheese and mushrooms. "We had some left over," Saverio shrugged, using his shoulders and both hands. Both his torta and his smile were irresistible.
The problem was, we did not have Olympian appetites to go with our lack of resistance and the next course, a special platter of wine and garlic-marinated mussels and clams, completely satisfied us. This dish had such an intoxicating aroma that its presence flared nostrils throughout the dining room. Our bottle of chilled Frascati from Enzo's all-Italian wine list proved to be its perfect complement. The evening ended naturally at that point.
Next time, we agreed, there would be more pace. We returned, aiming straight for homemade pastas and main courses. Even the pastas come with soup or salad, and as before, the portions were huge. The salad was smothered in a dressing of pureed herbs and vegetables; the soup was steaming bowls of vegetable bean topped with heaps of fresh Parmesan.
"They're so big," said my friend to Saverio, who again was serving us. "Why not . . . abbondanza ," said Saverio, flashing a grin.
Pastas came family style to the table, in large porcelain serving dishes. The best, spaghetti mediterraneo , with a red sauce and baby shrimps, calamari and sea scallops, was easily enough for two. The lightest, cannelloni, came stuffed with a delicate mousse of veal, and the risotto with porcini had a most subtle, pleasant aftertaste.
Main dishes were not particularly imaginative, but all we tried were fine. I especially liked veal piccata, made with perfectly trimmed meat as soft as butter. Seafoods vary nightly.
Accompanying these dishes were gargantuan orders of the daily pasta (in this case, farfalle alla marinara with tiny balls of minced veal), and a vegetable plate of steamed artichoke bottoms with zabaglione sauce and sauteed eggplant. Abbondanza . Veal dishes were also garnished with perfect, golden little potato croquettes.
Anyone eating dessert automatically qualifies for a berth on the Italian Olympic team. There is a rum-soaked cake with chocolate and whipped cream, and the inevitable tiramisu , here done exquisitely. Abbondanza. And a gold meal for Enzo and Angelo.