I'll have to admit that I'm biased. I have loved and respected Maria Giordano of Pasta Maria--now called Tutto Pasta Maria in Brentwood--since Giordano was the cook-clerk behind the Irvine Ranch Market deli counter some years back.
She left the market to open Pasta Maria, a deli-restaurant with the emphasis on takeout food, tucked in a neighborhood mall. Then Silvio di Mori of Tuttobene teamed with Giordano to create Tutto Pasta Maria, lifting Pasta Maria a hair to the rank of restaurant-deli, with the emphasis on restaurant.
Except for the partnership and a brand-new sit-down menu, not much has really changed. (It's still Pasta Maria in the telephone book.) The atmosphere remains warm and inviting. The deli has been relegated to daytime service. The restaurant food is still great in a homey way, and Giordano. . . .
Giordano is still the same effervescent sprite of a woman with a warm Sorrento soul. "You com to see me? Ow nice of you," she said, pulling actor Robert Wagner down to her 5-foot height so she could plant kisses on each cheek.
Host With Decorum
Di Mori, on the other hand, is a cool, debonair, consummate host whose handshake offers the grace and decorum of an ambassador. He's cool and she's warm, thank heaven. A good team. She is the earth mother of abundance and generosity incarnate, and that is translated into the food the restaurant serves.
Even the plants that decorate Tutto Pasta Maria are extraordinarily healthy. Abundance is everywhere: hanging garlic and chiles, the packed deli case, on the plates delivered to your table. "I be all day in the kitch and I make the roast pepp. You try?" The roast red pepper baked with a light covering of Gorgonzola was divine. So was the grilled radicchio baked with Mozzarella and tomato sauce. And the baked rigatoni al pomodoro.
Tutto Pasta Maria is a great neighborhood restaurant. It's a place to take the family, settle a family dispute, enjoy an anniversary or birthday, charm a lover, have a good cry over a glass of Barolo, or a gossipy lunch with a best pal. In other words, it's as if you were at home.
The Italian-language menu has things you might not understand were it not for a decent description following each item. There are appetizers such as caprese di carciofi (fresh bufala mozzarella with artichokes), carpaccio di manzo all'arugula (thinly sliced raw beef fillet with arugula and Parmesan) and grilled radicchio.
I was pleasantly surprised to see strozzapretti con ricotta e verdura (spinach and ricotta cheese dumplings with sage) in the pasta section. I adored the strozzapretti con ricotta e verdura when I was first introduced to it some years back. It came to the table with a little story about a priest (pretti) who swooned at the first taste of the airy, fluffy bullets of spinach with cheese. If you've not tried these unusual dumplings, now is the time.
The pasta section is excellent; in fact, with pastas today's diners have learned about in the last few years, such as penne all'arrabbiata (fiery hot and spicy macaroni), capellini al pomodoro e basilico fresco (angel-hair pasta with fresh tomato and basil sauce), linguine alla vongole (linguine with clams), risotto ai funghi porcini al tartufo (arborio rice with porcini mushrooms and truffle sauce) and more.
Country Italian Entrees
Among the entrees are more interesting Italian country dishes: roast chicken with herbs and truffles, grilled salmon fillets with basil and watercress sauce, roast lamb chops with Gorgonzola sauce, giant prawns with lemon and rosemary.
Giordano makes a good, but not the best, tiramisu (cocoa-mascarpone-biscuit trifle) I've ever had. On the other hand, I have yet to enjoy more a French tart tatin (called torta di mele tatin alla crema ). It is superb. There is also a wonderful homemade gelato and a Southern Italian canoli with chocolate and candied fruits that might be found in Little Italy in New York.
Don't leave without a cup of espresso, which, at Tutto Pasta Maria is also full-bodied, rich and overflowing.
Tutto Pasta Maria, 11620 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; (213)-207-2833. Open daily, except Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; dinner from 6 to 11:30 p.m. ; deli take out open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Reservations required for dinner. Major credits cards accepted. Free parking in mall. Wine and beer only. Banquets and catering available. Lunch entrees less than $10. Diner entrees from $6 to $12.