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Let's Eat Out

Opening Day at Rosso e Nero on Melrose

December 03, 1987|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

I noticed and heard nothing. No signboards, no tap-tap-tapping of the jack hammer. Not a hint of the slick, brightly neoned Rosso e Nero on Melrose Avenue until the day the doors opened.

It was all like an overnight zap-transfer from the twilight zone.

Anyway, Rosso e Nero (translated to "red and black," as in blood and guts) was suddenly there, smack in front of me, staring me in the face. And I walked in.

"Buon giorno . You wanna sit by the door?" asked the portly maitre d' dressed like a member of Italian parliament, offering me a seat at the accordion door opening onto the sidewalk.

"No," I said. "I wanna sit in the back by the pizza oven, where it's cozy."

"OK," the man replied, happy to seat me at all. It was, after all, opening day, and business, while not exactly lacking, was understandably at a crawl.

The host flipped the napkin and tossed it on my lap like a feather. A man of experience.

The smell of pizza came wafting over like a serenade; the antipasto in the glass case said, "Take me." They had the look and smell of professional (versus mom and pop) Italian food.

Except for the ice cream parlor decor, so far so good.

I studied the menu. Not inexpensive. Appetizers around $6.50, salads around $5, pasta around $9 and fish and meats around $16. It's about what you'd expect to pay at the far more chic, even more professional and infinitely more imaginative Chianti down the street, so the food should have been good.

And it was, in its own fashion.

I'll have to say that few other places possess such apparent dedication to service. That's because the workers have a vested interest. They are members of the family--three grown children and Pop, the maitre d', and sometimes Mom, the maitress d' .

Even fewer places have served me a better risotto al Gorgonzola. Nice and creamy and perfectly al dente.

The risotto , thick with white truffle shavings, was also good, if slightly guilty of truffle overkill and odoriferousness.

The rigatoni "alla moda dello chef, " which, that day, was the Bolognese style, brought me back to Little Italy in New York, where the Neapolitan cooking is invincible. But while the owner, Antonio Neiviller, is from Naples, the cuisine leans heavily toward the Northern because the chef, Agostino Sciandri--an import from Il Giardino restaurant in Beverly Hills--is from Florence.

Hence, also, such dishes as tagliatelle al tartufo d'Alba (homemade noodles with truffles), ravioli filled with radicchio, the penne al porcini, trenette (pasta from Genoa) made with a pesto of basil, garlic and pine nuts. The grilled porcini-- huge grilled mushroom caps heavy with olive oil--are good, too. There is a general heavy-handed use of olive oil, typical of true Italian cooking, so if that is a problem do let them know you'd like a lighter hand with the oil.

The branzino and orata fish from Mediterranean waters are served grilled with lemon and rosemary and are worth an experiment if you've never had these outstanding fresh fish from Italy.

The rosemary chicken and veal chop sauteed in butter and sage are ample and tasty, as are the lamb chops, which I love to order at Italian restaurants because of their imperfection. The chops are a far cry from the picture-perfect cut of meat found at Morton's or the Palm, but they are from a cuisine where taste rather than looks matters most.

Entrees come with the best freshly pan-fried herbed potatoes I've had anywhere. They're the kind of comforting food you rarely get outside of Italy.

Then there is the pizza and calzone made with an excellent thin crust, which would make an ample and satisfying meal with salad on a late movie night or for lunch. There is a mussels-and-tomato pizza if you lean toward the unusual, and one with artichokes, if you don't. The calzone is filled with ham, ricotta, mushrooms and tomatoes.

The salads need work. They just don't hold up to jaded expectations after a salad eaten at Chianti or Il Giardino or Celestino Ristorante. The quality and presentation isn't there. The tomatoes the day I had the mozzarella and tomato salad definitely needed upgrading.

I worry about the prices at Rosso e Nero. I worry about the ambiance and level of quality in relation to those prices when compared to Chianti. But then I thought of Sciandri's good cooking. Especially those potatoes. Ah, well.

Rosso e Nero Ristorante, 7371 Melrose Ave. Los Angeles. (213) 658-6340. Open seven days, from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. for lunch; from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. for dinner weekdays and 1:30 a.m. weekends. Open only for dinner Sundays. All credit cards accepted. Reservations suggested. Valet parking available. Beer and wine. Average dinner $25 without wine or dessert.

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