Eating at De Milo, a new Italian restaurant on Larchmont Boulevard, has been a struggle--a struggle to find anything wrong. If you make enough visits to a restaurant, usually something turns out badly. But the closest I can get to a flaw is to note that the croutons for the Caesar salad are not fried in garlic-flavored oil as is done in Tijuana, where the salad originated. And that isn't a flaw, just a different approach. The salad, by the way, is fine.
De Milo has a straightforward small menu of veal dishes, chicken, seafood, several pizzas and pastas. No razzle-dazzle trendy flights of fancy here, just wonderful food prepared with taste and a light hand.
That is not to say the dishes are routine, or old-fashioned. The salads are contemporary enough. Insalata Caprese combines tomato slices, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, basil leaves and shredded radicchio in a careful arrangement. There is no dressing, the better to focus on the natural flavors. A mussel salad presents the mollusks in their shells, topped with a champagne sauce as delicate as whipped cream. Sticks of Parmesan cheese join with mushrooms, radicchio and lettuce in Insalata Orlando--an interesting blend of flavors.
I'm not a veal fancier, but I've had more veal dishes here than anything else, and they are excellent. Veal Parmigiana could be rich and heavy, but De Milo's version is so light that you think you are dieting, and the veal is as tender as butter. I also liked veal Forestiere, with a Marsala cream sauce and mushrooms; veal scallops in a tomato-cream sauce with brandy and capers and pasta alla Bolognese, which has a sparse, almost dry veal sauce.
Pizzas come with crisp crusts and fresh tomato toppings, not those heavy, long cooked, deep red sauces. The pastas avoid them, too. One night there was a marvelous rendition of fettuccine with smoked salmon, shrimp and cream sauce. Pasta de Milo is another creamy dish, but instead of mellow richness, it exhibits the acid tang of yogurt, combined with garlic. Angel hair pasta with basil and tomato has lots of garlic, too. Linguine with pesto, veal cannelloni and spaghetti with scampi are other choices.
Daily specials usually include plainly cooked fish, the veal Parmigiana or another veal dish, sometimes pasta with an assortment of seafood and, recently, abalone from Santa Barbara. The menu lists only two chicken dishes. The chicken breast Trevi style, with fresh tomato-brandy sauce and mozzarella, is as light as the veal Parmigiana.
De Milo is a neighborhood restaurant, its neighborhood being well-heeled Hancock Park. Lunch is busy, and at night the room fills with the sort of people who prefer good food and conversation to noisy flash. The peach and black interior is quite handsome. There is also a patio for outdoor dining.
This Italian restaurant is run not by an Italian but by a French-Armenian, Gary Tashjian. Tashjian was born in Lyon but says he prefers Italian food to French. In this family operation, Tashjian keeps a tight hand on the food and wine; his son manages the dining room, and his daughter makes the salads and a chocolate mousse that is one of a handful of desserts.
The prices won't take you to the cleaners', which is an appropriate cliche because De Milo occupies a site that formerly housed a dry-cleaning establishment. Pastas range from $8.25 to $9.25, except for the specials; pizzas are $5.75 to $7.95. Veal dishes average $14.50. And the insalata Caprese, which is enough for two, is $7.50.
De Milo recently added a wine list that is dominated by California wines, which Tashjian regards as superior in quality to medium-priced Italian wines.
De Milo Ristorante, 113 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 461-1770. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner from 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, to 10 p.m. Sunday. Reservations advised for dinner; not accepted for lunch. All major credit cards accepted. Plenty of street parking.