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Let's Eat Out

A Restaurant With Roots in Little Italy

August 27, 1987|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

Pretend you are not in Beverly Hills.

Close your eyes and pretend you're at Benito's I on Mulberry Street in New York. There are fake grapes and wine bottles hanging from the ceiling, sawdust on the floor, the room is dark and cozy and people are walking in through the back door.

We'h talkin' Noo Yowk heah.

We're talking good, homemade Sicilian Mom and Pop food. Not yuppety uppety Beverly Hills cum Milan.

We are talking about a restaurant with a proletarian past, roots in New York's Little Italy ghetto: "Hard-Working Mom and Pop From Sicily Open Little Place on Mulberry Street."

Except that the uptowners smelled the sauce and gave Benito's I a rocket boost out of its neighborhood, across the continent and into the rough sea of Beverly Hills, where the shark-infested waters are a bit too testy for the vulnerable innocence of Benito's I. My advice is a hastened retreat to safer ground, even if it's just down the way on Melrose. Preferably a side street, where the customers can enter from the back and sides, not the front, the way they do on Mulberry Street.

I vote for grapes and wine bottles hanging from the ceiling and sawdust on the floor, waiters with Godfather II, not Father of the Bride, costuming. Although I did notice that the maitre d' is trying, with his black striped shirt and black tie.

Still, if you can see your way through the ill-fitting elements of costuming, ambiance, the modern Italian gelati decor inherited from the predecessor, Tonito (change the "T" to "B" and "o" to "e" and you have . . .), and prices a tad too high for what it's supposed to be, you can concentrate on the food, which, in my opinion, is as good down-home Mulberry Street Sicilian food as you can get in Los Angeles. Something like Carmine's, La Dolce Vita, Dan Tana's and Matteo's, only as good; maybe better.

Nobody in town serves portions as gargantuan. But don't get me wrong. Oversize portions, in my opinion, are a big draw in a town that only pretends to eat lightly. In Los Angeles we eat elephants and pretend we've nibbled on a fly.

So we have some abbondanza and very good pasta-- amatriciana , made with a bacon- and onion-flavored tomato sauce), arrabbiatta , made with chiles in the sauce (and my favorite), spaghetti with meat sauce, linguine with clam sauce, gnocchi (slightly heavy for my taste) and bunches more. Nothing fancy, but good.

There also are some good homey meat dishes that fairly hang over the plate because of their size, ranging from excellent grilled things like fresh fish of the day (swordfish, bass and salmon), quality veal chops (you get two for the price of one) and steak, plus the usual but classic veal and chicken dishes. There is a veal zingara made with Marsala wine and vegetables, a veal scaloppine a la pizzaiola with garlic and marinara sauce, and Benito's veal, made with prosciutto, mushrooms and Marsala, among others. The chicken Benito is made with chicken sauteed with olive oil, garlic and lemon, which you'd find on any Italian menu in New York.

The mozzarella marinara is a little different here. It's actually a bread-based fried mozzarella sandwich with tomato sauce. Spiedino (the same sandwich without the sauce) is homey and satisfying, and the antipasto is Sicilian down to its artichoke heart. A superb sauteed escarole on the appetizer menu can be eaten as an appetizer or side vegetable dish.

Nowhere in Los Angeles will you find Italian fried rice balls as good. They're fresh, crisp and absolutely delicious. A single rice ball goes on most entrees, but I'm sure the restaurant will accommodate you with a side dish if asked. The help seems willing to please.

Some of my colleagues who have dined at Benito's talk about a dish called gratto, a sort of layered casserole which requires a day's notice to prepare. I never did catch up with gratto , but neither have I caught up with another dish you order ahead--a Sicilian pasta al forno, a baked pasta dish layered with ground veal, cheese and sauce. I'll go back for that.

Then we have the desserts, which include a good New York cannoli (a rolled wafer cookie filled with sweetened ricotta cheese) and a good Sicilian rum cake made with an excellent pan di spagna (spongecake) topped with lots of whipped cream. The tira mi su was a disaster--and with reason. It's not Sicilian. It's from a place called Alto Adige, way up in Northern Italy where, the story goes, women of the night requiring a pick-up to expedite their work, were treated by the brothel chef to a daily dose of tira mi su, a creamy pudding with coffee-flavored ladyfingers, which literally means "pick me up" in Italian. Such a provocative dish would be drummed out of town in Sicily. Benito might also do well to do the same.

Otherwise, the feeling from the people is cool- warmth, typical of the aloof, proud Sicilian Italians in New York, and the food is homey, abundant and just plain good.

Just close your eyes and pretend you're on Mulberry Street.

Benito I, 410 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 275-7425. Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Saturday 4:30 to 11 p . m., Sunday until 10 p.m. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations not necessary. Parking in rear of restaurant available; entry from back welcomed. Entrees from $9 to $18. Wine and beer available.

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