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FOOD : Da Vinci in the Kitchen : The Culinary Art and Alchemy of Chianti Cucina's Antonio Tommasi

July 12, 1987|ROSE DOSTI

ANYONE WHO HAS followed the career of Antonio Tommasi of Chianti Cucina in Los Angeles knows him as a sort of Leonardo da Vinci of the Italian restaurant world--both scientist and culinary artist in one.

He even looks like a young version of da Vinci--tall, blond, a nose prominently aristocratic.

His passion for looking beyond the obvious, creating new ideas from old, has been lifelong; as a 6-year-old he was forced to help in the Venetian kitchen of the Cipriani Hotel where his father was a chef. "I hated the kitchen work imposed upon me. My dreams changed every month, every day." Later, as a teen-ager, he "loved language, travel. I was attracted to everything unknown to me," he says.

But things changed after a stint at a hotel school in Padua, cooking apprenticeships (Padua's Villa Altichiero, the former Italian kings' summer residence, among them) in Italy and Switzerland, and the national Mestolo d'Oro (Golden Spoon) prize awarded to outstanding chefs. His experiments in the kitchen brought him closer to his natural passion for discovery. He became the inflamed kitchen alchemist, using classical cooking methods as a springboard for his imaginative concoctions, making his own prosciutto and salami and fermenting his own wine. He was the first in Los Angeles, he claims, to introduce black pasta, an idea springing from classical Italian squid-ink risotto, which, in fact, is gray in color. His pasta experiment brought out ink-black color, which inspired him to try other flavors and colors--beet, lemon, red bell pepper and seaweed. He has developed an all-vegetable pasta that can be used hot or cold, as a salad, soup, side dish or entree. "There are certain (recipes) I am jealous of and don't want to share. The vegetable pasta is one of them," he says.

If you had dined at Chianti Cucina on Saint Valentine's Day this year, you would have been among the first diners-- possibly in the world--to bite into heart-shaped ravioli made with gold and silver leaf and to nibble on rose-petal sauce.

Working in Los Angeles has also stimulated his creativity. One of many Italian chefs wooed to the United States, Tommasi arrived under the sponsorship of the Orlando-Orsini restaurant. He moved on to Cafe Roma, then Rex, and spent a year at the Rodeo Collection's Excelsior Restaurant, which foolishly, he thinks, featured both Italian and French food. "They are rival cuisines, they don't work well together," he says.

After a short spell at Boh! in West Los Angeles, he finally settled down at Chianti Cucina on Melrose Avenue, owned by Spectrum Foods. Tommasi is executive chef for all the Spectrum restaurants, Velvet Turtles among them.

We have from Tommasi an Italian- California menu, starting with a traditional mushroom appetizer jazzed up with products available in California: enoki mushrooms from Japan, trompet from France and oyster mushrooms from Sonoma. The salad is dressed with traditional Italian extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice. The second course is a whole-wheat pasta made with bran (what Roman ever heard of that?) served with smoked bufala mozzarella and olive paste (a spread) that can be purchased at most Italian gourmet food stores. Then, as an entree, you have breast of mullard, which Tommasi serves paillard -style with grilled radicchio and endive and a sauce made with blueberries, English mustard and fruit mustard called mostarda di frutta in Italian, a relish often used to flavor sauces. It, too, is available at Italian food stores. The mullard (a mallard-pekin duck hybrid) are usually sold as breasts alone, to restaurants, but they are available to retail consumers through Van Rex Gourmet Foods in Van Nuys.

Tommasi's finale is the tiny Italian cookie balls called baci di dama (translated as lady's kiss), which often are served with fresh fruit or espresso. Similar cookies are available at Italian bakeries.

MEDLEY OF MUSHROOMS WITH LEMON VINAIGRETTE 6 ounces oyster mushrooms 6 ounces tree mushrooms 6 ounces button mushrooms 4 ounces white trompet (trumpet) mushrooms 1 package enoki mushrooms 1/2 bunch Italian parsley 1/2 pound grated Parmesan cheese Lemon Vinaigrette

Clean oyster, tree, button, trumpet and enoki mushrooms well with damp cloth. Slice mushrooms thin and toss together. Add parsley and cheese. Toss with Lemon Vinaigrette. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Lemon Vinaigrette 1 cup olive oil cup lemon juice Salt, pepper

Beat olive oil with lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste until creamy.

PENNETTE DI GRANO SARACENO AL PESTO D'ULIVE E PROVOLA DI BUFALA (Whole-Wheat Pasta al Pesto with Smoked Mozzarella) 1/2 cup olive oil 1 clove garlic, minced 6 tomatoes, diced 3 or 4 basil leaves Salt, pepper 3 ounces olive paste 1 pound whole-wheat penne, spaghetti or other pasta 8 ounces smoked bufala mozzarella cheese, diced or cubed

Heat oil in large skillet. Add garlic, diced tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper to taste and cook 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in olive paste.

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