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RESTAURANTS : Angeli Grows Up and Moves West

February 14, 1988|CHARLES PERRY

You can tell you're at Angeli by the tablecloth. An old-fashioned Italian restaurant has a red checked cloth to go with tomato sauce; a Northern Italian place has white linen to go with cream sauce. At Angeli, the tablecloth is butcher paper (on top of red fabric), so you'll be ready for the rough, vital taste of regional Italian food, full of character, straight from the soil. And anyway, Angeli has always specialized in exquisite pizzas, which can't be said to have any sauce at all.

But can this really be Angeli? Where are the low, claustrophobic ceilings? Where's the fevered Melrose Avenue ambiance? Aha. This is not Angeli Caffe in West Hollywood. It's Trattoria Angeli in West Los Angeles.

The Trattoria has ceilings about a full story higher than the parent, so even when the place is packed and the crowd magic is working, the din never reaches excruciating Melrose levels. As at Angeli Caffe, the design is high-tech, full of bold, unglamorized structural elements, but here the effect is fully operatic with only an occasional nod to functionalism, more or less high-tech as frivolity. It's quite grand, and the menu recognizes this with a full page of credits for the design and decor that reads like the small print in a movie ad. There's everything but a "from an idea by" credit.

The menu will look familiar to Angeli fans: the same appetizers, salads, pastas and pizzas. You can also get a straightforward zuppa di pesce with a clean, simple fish broth, or a dish of rustic sausages loudly flavored with anise and red pepper and served on Swiss chard ( salsicce con verdure ), but even better things may show up on special.

I was about to leave one day, let down by an excessively plain roasted chicken--on a plate with collard greens and roasted eggplant, which were both rather bitter, as was the chicken's blackened skin--when I ran across some friends who had wisely ordered the specials: swordfish rolled up in garlicky bread crumbs and stunning veal and endive ravioli, bright yellow from saffron in the pasta and served in an aromatic saffron sauce. I almost went back to my table and confiscated the waiter's tip for not having told me about them.

The relatively short appetizer list includes deep-fried rice balls ( suppli ) made of saffrony risotto, and rather better deep-fried potato balls ( croquette di patate ) stuffed with a tantalizing bit of mozzarella and salami. Olive al forno are delicious black olives served, surprisingly, as a hot appetizer in sauce of white wine, rosemary and garlic. Verdure alla griglia , roughly grilled vegetables popping with flavor, are listed as an entree but make a good appetizer, as do rustic salads like panzanella , consisting of tomatoes, cored cucumbers, bell pepper slices and freshly toasted chunks of Italian bread with a little vinaigrette and lots of capers.

On the other hand, I am a little mystified by the fungi misti . These are three mushrooms prepared three different ways, the menu says, but apparently they aren't prepared three different ways at the same time. One day they were vinegary and sprinkled with basil, another day they were lightly breaded without any flavoring. And I really don't understand the point of an appetizer of radicchio (including root) cooked with mozzarella stuffed between the leaves. There ought to be a third party in this dish, at least as a referee.

The basic pizza dough, which you can order as a bread either by itself or sprinkled with garlic and olive oil, tastes like a cross between Italian bread and a saltine cracker. It's deliriously great topped with a mixture of mozzarella, Gorgonzola and sun-dried tomatoes ( pizza in paradiso ) or a more unexpected mixture of mozzarella, ricotta, lentils and spinach ( braccio di ferro or "iron arm"--a Popeye joke?) or made into calzone filled with mixtures like sausage, smoky mozzarella and eggplant. Even tastier are the sandwiches called panini . They're made with flat, round and superbly crusty fresh buns filled with things like pork (for panino d'arista ) mixed with pickled onions, astonishingly sharp mustard and arugula. The pastas, a rather modest list, are clean and light-tasting but not positively exciting, certainly not next to the dazzlers that can show up among the daily specials.

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