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Giving Thanks for Places That Don't Serve Turkey : La Bruschetta: Unusual Italian

November 22, 1987|RUTH REICHL

"No, no, no, not again." The Reluctant Gourmet was shouting so loud that I had to hold the phone away from my ear. He lowered his voice a little. "Please," he pleaded, "don't take me to another horror of a restaurant. I don't think I could stand it."

It had, to be truthful, been a terrible week. First there was the fancy new restaurant where four of us managed to spend almost $200 on things like canned pate (complete with those little cubes of mix-made aspic that look like jellied topaz and taste like jellied toes), rubbery squab and what might be the worst tarte tatin ever made. Then there was the pretty new Italian restaurant with soggy spaghetti and a seafood salad that tasted like it was made last week. But it was not until I dragged three friends off to that restaurant the young publicist has been hounding me to try that the RG growled, "I wish all the people who think your job is so great could be here now."

As he spoke, he was unsuccessfully trying to hide the better part of a dish called "rosti with caviar" under his bread plate. This was an attempt to avoid explaining why he had eaten only a single bite of greasy potato pancakes topped with crunchy day-glo caviar. "What am I going to say?" he cried. "That this is perhaps the most unpleasant plate of food I've ever seen?" We all spent the evening looking for ways to dispose of our uneaten food. At one point, we actually dumped most of a stringy, greasy overcooked duck into the wine bucket.

So I was a bit sympathetic to the RG's desire to simply stay home and eat pizza. "If we have to go out," he said, "let's go someplace pleasant."

"Like where?" I asked.

"How about that nice place we went last month with Bruce and Pam and the baby?" he replied.

I remembered that dinner; it had been a particularly appealing meal. The restaurant was understated and unassuming, and the maitre d' immediately made the baby welcome, saying, "It's nice to see children in a restaurant. I have two of my own."

The baby was happy. So was the RG. For no sooner did we sit down than a little plate of tidbits appeared at the table. There were a couple of kinds of bruschetta-- grilled Italian bread topped with tomatoes or arugula--and little arancini , deep-fried, cheese-filled rice balls. The RG, who normally waits with hungry and slightly frenzied impatience while everybody peruses the menu, was instantly thrilled. The wine list was lovely--and when we exclaimed over the '83 Monte Vertine, the maitre d' brought over a couple of other bottles of hard-to-find Italian wine.

"It wasn't the best meal I've ever eaten," the RG recalled, "but I really enjoyed being in that restaurant." Then he remembered his meal and added: "Come to think of it, I really did like the food. They made a great Caesar salad. The steak was very good. And I think you kept saying how interesting the pasta was.'

It had been unusual. In addition to ordinary dishes like penne alla checca (pasta topped with chopped raw tomatoes), we had tried a huge ravioli filled with sea bass in a lobster bisque sauce, and tortelloni with lamb and radicchio in a dark sauce rich with meat juices. And then I had eaten a splendid piece of simply grilled fish.

"So will you come with me if we go back to La Bruschetta?" I asked. The RG said yes.

The plate of bruschetta appeared at once. The RG beamed. But then the waiter also appeared, and as he recited the daily specials, the litany stretching on and on, the RG began to frown. "Why don't they just print a separate menu?" he grumped. "How do they expect anybody to remember all of that?" He looked at the menu. "I think I'll just have a veal chop. These special menus are too much trouble."

I talked him into starting with a special of grilled radicchio ; it turned out to be smoky with that strong bitter edge the vegetable gets when it's cooked. It was a delight. My own mussels were small and tender in a fine, delicate saffron broth. The RG, in fact, used up most of the bread sopping up my sauce. He then demolished a plump, long-boned veal chop in an understated Gorgonzola sauce, leaning over from time to time to take large bites of my three different pastas.

These were really impressive. I especially liked an unusual mix of angel-hair pasta and seafood that was served in a hollowed-out grapefruit. The bitterness of the grapefruit rind played off the sweetness of the seafood in a very attractive manner. I also liked little nuggets of pasta in a sauce of cooked-down broccoli, tomato and pancetta punched up by the bite of strongly salty sheep's milk cheese. The third pasta-- garganelli with smoked salmon--was less impressive; the pasta itself was a bit doughy and thick.

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