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A DINER FOR THE '80s

October 25, 1987|RUTH REICHL

Tuttobene, 945 N. Fairfax Ave., West Hollywood; (213) 655-7051. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Beer and wine. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$60.

What's going to happen to all the new diners when this ridiculous wave of nostalgia for the recent American past stops sweeping the nation? Who's going to eat all the awful blue plate specials?

It will not, I assure you, be me. Chicken a la king didn't taste so great the first time around, and tuna noodle casserole hasn't improved with age. And while meat loaf surely has its place, I tend to think it's in the home.

For the moment, though, diners keep opening at a furious clip; just last week, I got three cheery press releases jubilantly announcing that still more diners had entered the world. I can only hope that they will quickly follow the lead of the unlamented Hollywood Diner and turn themselves into diners for the '80s.

For that is exactly what the new Tuttobene is. Silvio De Mori did not, as may have been expected, make this into a sort of second Silvio's. He was smart enough to see that there was no way to transmogrify a gawky diner into a chic space. So he played to its weaknesses, keeping a television over the espresso bar, putting a quasi-modern neon sign on the wall, hanging art that borders on the kitsch. Plants are placed around as partial camouflage for the open kitchen behind the counter, but it is not a serious attempt. In fact, everything about the room seems designed as an antidote to seriousness. Sort of like the real diners that opened so long ago.

The menu also resembles what you'd find in diners back then. By which I do not mean that it is filled with macaroni and cheese and chicken pot pies, but rather that it serves a wide variety of food, all of it geared to modern life. Old diners served meat and potatoes; this one serves pasta and salad. Old diners mixed malts and brewed java; this one concentrates on mineral waters and espresso. The very essence of a diner is the comfort of familiarity, but the new nostalgia has brought us dolled up diners that are about as familiar as a trip to the moon.

Tuttobene is different. You won't find exotic dishes from the recent past on this menu, but all your new favorites are here. Primarily pasta. (Do you know anybody who doesn't like the stuff?) Of the many kinds on this menu, the most likable are the simpler sort--spaghetti with tomatoes, linguine with clams, spaghetti with a fine Bolognese sauce. When the kitchen goes for complexity--like pasta topped with shrimp with artichokes and cream--it tends to go wrong.

The same cannot be said of the salads, which take up a whole page on the menu. I liked the watery green salad the least, and to my surprise found the rather pretentious orange and arugula salad the best of the lot.

Risotto was another surprise. There are a number of them on the menu, and the ones I've tried have been so good that they could become the French fries of the '80s. One night's special, an unusual olive risotto made of what I suspect was olive paste from a jar, was wonderful; the combination of the bland rice and the inky, assertive, slightly bitter olives was inspired. But my favorite dish has been polenta topped with a sage and tomato flavored rabbit and veal sauce. The polenta had been stirred on top of the stove, not baked, so that it appeared as a creamy mass of corn meal topped with the homey sauce; it was one of the most appealing dishes I have had in a while.

But for every hit on this menu, there is a miss. An enormous two-pound steak arrived almost raw on one side, well-done on the other, and so doused with olive oil that you could hardly taste the meat. A veal chop, on the other hand, was a sort of updated diner dish, a hefty, flavorful piece of meat served with buttery spinach and lumpy mashed potatoes. The same spinach and potatoes that showed up, I might add, with the striped bass and diced potatoes. I've always been of the opinion that you can't have too many potatoes, but this was stretching it.

One thing that distinguishes a diner is the range of dishes that it serves. "Breakfast served all day," the old ones bragged. Well, they don't even serve breakfast here, but any time of the day you can get everything from hamburgers at $6.50 to imported porcini mushrooms at $30 a pound. (The hamburger's fine, but the mushrooms were a mistake; they arrived swimming in a sauce that had the ammoniated odor of mushrooms past their prime.) Many dishes come in half portions as well as whole ones and, in my experience, when you say that all you really want is half a salad, nobody seems put out.

Service is friendly and remarkably efficient. The wine list is small, not very good but moderately priced. The favored dessert here is tiramisu , a dish whose popularity I fail to understand. But looking at that big sweet square of damp cake sitting on the table, it occurred to me that it is perfect for the place: It's the baked custard of the '80s.

What ultimately distinguishes a diner from a restaurant, of course, is more than the difference between blue plate specials and blue point oysters (oysters, in fact, are on the menu here). What makes a diner different is that when all you want to do is have an easy meal in a place where you know you'll find something you feel like eating, it is the diners of the world that come to mind.

And you may find yourself thinking about Tuttobene quite a lot. Everything's fine, as the name indicates, and while you wouldn't want to drive a million miles to eat a meal here, when you're in the neighborhood you'll probably want to drop in.

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