Fab's Italian Kitchen in Sherman Oaks is a down-home restaurant with such a large following that the small vestibule is usually jammed with people waiting for tables. The shoe box-shaped room is as plain as, well, a shoe box. There is some abstract art on one side. And a pin-striped gray carpet extends part way up the walls. But the hearty, cheery warmth that makes the place so attractive is supplied by its customers. Mercifully, the buzz of talk stops just short of the level that requires shouting to be heard.
In the center, tables are strung in a line as if for family style dining, but they are occupied by separate parties. Sometimes a lone diner sits there with a book or magazine.
This atmosphere of comfortable informality sets the tone for the food. Big servings, simple fare, good bread, wine--it's a fantasy of what eating would be like if one were part of a big Italian family. And Fab's is family-owned. The first location, on Reseda Boulevard, was closed in favor of the current site on Van Nuys Boulevard. Another Fab's is scheduled to open in Westlake Village this summer.
The menu offers the expected dishes--spaghetti with meatballs, linguine with clam sauce, lasagna, pizza, eggplant Parmigiana and others. But nightly specials can be interesting. One time there was rape, the slim, slightly bitter Italian green, served over spaghetti with slices of sweet Italian sausage to offset the bitterness.
Shrimp Fab, another specialty, was not just shrimp but a big helping of seafood including mussels and clams in the shell. All of this was soaked in spicy red sauce and arranged over linguine.
On another night, a very cold one, braciola provided a hearty warm up. The rolled, spiced beef was sliced and presented in a rich brown sauce produced by simmering the beef with tomato. There are two versions, one served over pasta and the other combined with potatoes and vegetables. Mozzarella is melted on top.
Fab's gets a lot of mileage from its marinara sauce. There must be vats of it in the kitchen to accommodate the spaghetti, gnocchi, baked mostaccioli, eggplant Parmigiana, ravioli and other dishes that require it. The ravioli--circles of firm dough filled with plain cheese--seemed dull to me, but my companion, who was in a mood for simple food, liked them.
The mostaccioli had enough other components to make it interesting. Along with the sauce, the pasta was baked with ricotta cheese and thin slices of eggplant. The gnocchi could only have been appreciated by those with a taste for pasty, heavy little bullets of dough. But the eggplant Parmigiana was fresh and light, partly because the breaded eggplant was baked, not fried. Be sure to order the version that is stuffed with a mixture of ricotta and Parmesan cheeses, eggs and parsley.
Fab's makes a basic, old-fashioned pizza that is quite wonderful. The crust is crisp at the bottom and soft on top and maintains that texture if taken home and reheated. Fat sourdough rolls come with meals, but the Pioneer French Baking Co. gets the credit for those.
Salads are generous. One of the best is Fab's special salad, a rich plateful of leaf lettuce topped with tomato slices, red onion and lots of thinly sliced mushrooms, all covered with Gorgonzola cheese. There is the usual antipasto and also a nice, light salad of garlic-soaked broccoli that has the bite of hot peppers.
A friend recommended the veal, so I tried it with Marsala sauce. The sauce had good wine flavor but was a bit thick, as if produced by a home cook who resolutely stirs flour into everything. However, the thin, tender slices of meat merited the recommendation.
Fab's has many more dishes and also a catering and delivery service. Don't worry about the prices. They are reassuringly reasonable. The veal and the braciola are both $9.95. The stuffed eggplant Parmigiana and the baked mostaccioli are $6.95, and Fab's Special Salad is $3.95.
Fab's Italian Kitchen, 4336 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 995-2933. Open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m., Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted for groups of five or more. Takes Visa and MasterCard. Street parking.