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Pasta Master : IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT RAVIOLI, By Paul Mantee (Ballantine: $9, paper; 214 pp.)

December 22, 1991|Joanna Kavanagh | Kavanagh is a free-lance writer based in New York

Actor/author Paul Mantee hasn't left out a single ingredient in this delicious first novel. Peter Russo, screenwriter, in a black depression over a six-month-old divorce, is also battling a monstrous writer's block. When his surly Olympia manual typewriter ("the upstairs oracle") scares him by starting to sweet-talk/bully him into getting off his duff and back to work, Peter embarks on a familiar, escapist pastime--cooking.

This is not just any old cooking; this is the Mount Everest of cooking: trying to re-create, from scratch, his Italian grandmother's perfect ravioli--crown of the Sunday dinner table when "it came good." From his estranged parents who "haven't spoken to one another since the Allies invaded Normandy," he manages to get Nonna's secret 22-ingredient family recipe (which includes two whole beef or calf brains, a forest of Swiss chard and a dozen eggs, more or less), as well as an abondanza of advice on where to buy the freshest vegetables and the best meat. ("Look for the marble, honey.")

While soaking, chopping and grinding up this mountain of food in a resurrected, hand-cranked meat grinder (the kind that screws onto the edge of a kitchen table), Peter reminisces about his San Francisco boyhood and takes us on a sentimental romp back to a gentler time--growing up in the 1940s. And such a lovely, nostalgia-dappled time he has recaptured, a before-TV time when comic books and radio reigned, and kids were told to "go out and play, and stay out" until they heard the father's neighborhood whistle call them to supper.

When Peter isn't being Peter, he's being the Phantom ("The Ghost Who Walks"), and in the privacy of his room he tries to mold his skinny, gawky body into a Charles Atlas clone. From Page 1, when Peter's chin, bloodied by a Gene Autry pistol mishap, is being treated in Nonna's kitchen with that old panacea, Epsom Salts "hot-as-you-can-stand-it," I was hooked.

When he's not visiting his divorced mother Rose (a dead ringer for Irene Dunne), who takes him to double features and lets him drink cocoa in bed, Peter is being tormented by his stepmother. That worthy keeps catching him "acting smart" or fooling around in the bedroom with Bobby Jamison, upon which she hauls out that famous All-American threat, a pack-off to military school, or her own version of the Punishment from Hell, a half-hour of kneeling bare-legged on a pile of raw rice.

All of this is somewhat mitigated by frequent visits to Nonna's exotic-smelling house, where he's loved up by his big, warm, slightly wacky Italian family, the kind we all wish we'd been born into. How many of us would not have traded our boring lamb chops and stringbeans for some of that garlicky stuffed zucchini, even in those days before pasta machines became the in yuppie toy?

Paul Mantee hasn't forgotten how real kids talk, nor how grownup talk sounds to kids--just one dumb, convenient cliche after another. The book reminds one a little of Paul Stewart's long-ago charmer, "Where Did You Go? OUT. What Did You Do? NOTHING." As all kids know, OUT meant up in the woods or walking along the railroad tracks, just as NOTHING meant falling through the ice in the duck pond, or lighting forbidden candle stubs in an underground hut.

When Peter and Frankie Dolan finally get Heidi Rebholtz to take down her panties behind the bushes and promise that next time she'll let them "touch it with a leaf," we're right back there with them. Pete is such an endearing boy you want to eat him up. He's the kind of kid who falls for brainy, flat-chested tomboys and crooked Christmas trees that nobody else would buy.

This is so much more than just another coming-of-age book. From bittersweet school days and klutziness on the baseball diamond, to the la-dee-da girlfriend (boyfriend?) with the tomato aspic/beef Stroganoff parents, the author has our childhood nailed.

If there's a complaint, it's that there is an overabundance of food on this plate (what else?). A stint in the Korean War Navy, an R&R idyll in Hawaii with an older woman and her artsy friends, his days at Berkeley: These are only broad-brushed in, and leave the reader with an appetite for more. Each of these episodes could be its own novel, but for me, the earlier part of this book is its heart.

Nonna's "perfect ravioli" is successfully completed and enjoyed con gusto by those who deserve to enjoy it. In the doing comes the healing for which it was intended.

If the multitalented Mantee were not such a good actor ("The Great Santini," "Helter-Skelter," "Dallas," "L.A. Law") I'd suggest that he chuck the "heavy" roles and turn his hand to more concoctions such as this one.

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