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Il Piccolino: The Great Italian Experiment

May 14, 1987|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

The new baby next door to Emilio's restaurant in Hollywood is called Il Piccolino Trattoria, but the papa isn't Emilio Baglioni. It's his son, Dino.

The only connection between Emilio's and Piccolino's is strictly Siamese--geographically back to back and very, very friendly. They borrow sugar from each other, but that's about it, they say.

"We're two separate corporations," said Dino, who runs Piccolino with his mother, a handsome woman with bright-red hair and lilting voice.

"Separate kitchen, chefs and staff," she added.

Every now and then, papa Emilio peers through the swinging door. Checking for turncoats? Traitors? Deserters from next door? Not quite. He recognizes an old friend and comes in. He gives a pretend smack at Dino the way Italians in movies do to signify affection. "How do you like this bandit's new place?" he says with a wide smile. He's showing off, of course, and you feel any moment his concertina, the one he uses to entertain customers next door, will appear and he'll start serenading Dino's customers.

But, of course, he doesn't. You can tell Emilio is having a tough time controlling his natural urge to offer you the world. "You got enough bread? How about some wine? Get a new fork for the lady," he ordered, bringing the waiter standing like a sentry at his heels to life.

Dino smiles. He folds his arms and waits good humoredly for papa to take his leave. Which papa promptly does. Papa is no fool.

This is Dino's deal. His idea, his style, his experiment.

Ah . . . We just hit on the word. Experiment.

Dino likes experiments. He's somewhat of a kitchen scientist in search of the ultimate elixir. A formula, perhaps not to save the world from hunger, but certainly worthy. Something small--and new. A low-cal pizza crust. A healthful snack food.

This is not Emilio's kitchen of ancient regional Italian cooking that has stood the test of time. This is a young man's laboratory where the old is given a new twist.

Take the pizza crust, for instance.

Dino's pizza crust is in the first phases of development, still in the hands of the technician, the pizza cook from Italy, who is going crazy wondering not only why Americans don't take three hours for lunch as they do in Italy, but what his boss could be thinking of when he orders soy flour in the pizza-dough formula.

"Soy flour reduces the calories and increases the protein and makes the crust crisp," said Dino scientifically.

"But is it good?"

"It's getting there," he says.

It's getting there.

Take the pasta dough.

The pasta dough has, happily, passed the rigors of all phases of experiment and final inspection by the chief scientist himself. It's now in the final stages of approval from the board of directors--the customers. And it's terrific. Light, airy, almost a cloud passing your lips. Try the crespelle alla valdostana, a pasta roll filled with prosciutto, ham and cheese covered with a terrific bechamel sauce, and you'll see.

You'll also find the same celestial dough on most of the ravioli and agnolotti noodles whenever they appear. Watch for them. The dishes made with rigatoni, fedelini, spaghettini, tortellini and the fettuccine are excellent, if perhaps a bit too saucy. But the sauces are wonderful, too, so who's complaining?

The gnocchi (still experimental) needs work, but the aromatic tomato sauce over it gets a high-five. Very fresh. Very good. The cream sauce on the fettuccine with porcini mushrooms was like silk. Even the sauce on the mozzarella marinara, offered as a robust appetizer, was fantastic. Quite light and wonderfully balanced. I also enjoyed the terrific flavor of the fried mozzarella under the sauce.

The menu is quite simple and fairly priced for the quality. No dish on the menu (offered for both lunch and dinner) is more than $10. Some meat or fish specials may go up to $13.50. There is antipasti--salads of all kinds (mixed salad with radicchio , hazelnuts, raisins and ricotta is lovely), plus a pasta di fagioli (bean and pasta soup) that is out of this world, one of the best I've had.

There is a pizza category, which allows Dino and the pizza chef to play with ideas. There is now a pizza with a thin layer of polenta, escarole, garlic, Gorgonzola cheese and sweet red peppers, which sounds interesting enough to try. I tried the pizza with salmon and asparagus, which was a good flavor combination, and pizza alla campagniolla (assorted vegetables), which also had excellent flavor.

In the meat department, the experiments are not yet in the high development stage, but not bad, either. You are offered things like broiled or baked half chicken with rosemary or a chicken-breast casserole with white wine and mushrooms. Fish is offered grilled and sauteed, depending on the availability. There was coho salmon, whitefish and swordfish the times we were there.

Among the side dishes, the fried potatoes are fried with olive oil, an eating experience not to be missed. The polenta is offered as a side dish.

Sweets also are made on the premises and they are quite good. Try the sweet pizza Piccolino .

Il Piccolino Trattoria, 641 N. Highland Ave . , Los Angeles, (213) 936-2996. Open seven days, from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Reservations accepted. Valet parking. Wine and beer. Average entree $8.

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