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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Pastina: Well Worth the Wait : Cozy atmosphere and good food make customers linger over this Italian kitchen's offerings.

April 02, 1993|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At Pastina, the brightly lit Italian restaurant that replaced the Cajun restaurant Patout's, I recently encountered what I'll kindly refer to as the overly optimistic maitre d'.

My party had arrived promptly for our reservation. The restaurant was packed. There were two or three groups waiting to be seated ahead of us. The maitre d' confidently assured us: "Five minutes." I knew by looking at the crowd that five minutes was a ridiculously low estimate, and indeed, 30 minutes later, we were finally led to our table.

To Pastina's credit, we were given complimentary drinks as we waited, and also an explanation--people were lingering at their tables long after their checks were paid, happily oblivious to the hungry diners assembled at the entrance.

The reason they were so happy: The food is definitely worth waiting for--and lingering over. Chef Vincenzo Nicoletta, formerly of L.A. Trattoria and Casa Monica, is working his reliable magic in the kitchen, and Pastina pizza makers have been well-coached by Pasquale Morra of Angeli/Da Pasquale fame.

Gone from the old space is Patout's sunken dining room. New are the plate-glass windows, the large papery wall sconces, the butter-yellow walls. The flowered tapestry banquettes swallow you up. Such coziness is unusual in a town where much design energy has gone into creating stylish seating so uncomfortable, tables turn with alacrity.

*

By and large, Pastina's food is just plain good, from the hot pizza bread plunked down with your drinks to the fluffy tiramisu you can't quite finish. My favorite appetizer was the grilled fresh vegetables, which included nice pieces of perfectly charred endive and radicchio along with zucchini and eggplant. A small casserole dish of eggplant parmigiana is surprisingly light, fresh and clean-tasting. Calamaretti , small squid, came in a good tomato sauce with black olives and capers, but was served lukewarm, barely reheated.

Both the Caesar salad and tri-colore salad (arugula, endive and radicchio) were simple and perfect. I wondered how so many other restaurants manage to make such a mess of them.

Each bite of the deceptively simple spaghetti aglio e olio (with garlic, olive oil, red peppers and parsley) is increasingly flavorful; cumulative in its effect, the last strands of spaghetti, pulled from the pool of pepper-steeped oil, are the most intense.

Linguine di mare, an enormous plate of shellfish and calamari in a garlicky marinara sauce, was a bit overwhelming: too much of everything. Better--lighter, cleaner and profoundly fresh--was the spaghetti with jumbo shrimp, even if the shrimp weren't all that jumbo.

*

Pastina's varied and inspired pizza, however, steals the show. Biancaneve ("Snow White") pizza has a perfect, pleasurably bubbly crust topped with a blend of goat cheese, ricotta and mozzarella that is fluffy, almost custardy and scented with herbs. The cheeseless puttanesca pizza is the direct opposite: a bold display of capers, anchovies, slices of garlic and good fat black olives on red tomato sauce. Also good is the pizza Paradiso, with sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil and bits of Gorgonzola cheese tucked like flavor bombs under a blanket of mozzarella.

A handful of entrees are available for those who insist on a square meal. Chicken Napoletana with baby artichokes has a lot of red-pepper zing and comes with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes. Osso buco was just fine, though I found the freshly sauced, buttery fettuccine that came with the veal shank more compelling.

Another of Pastina's virtues: price. Not just reasonable. Low.

So ignore the maitre d'. It's probably going to be a while before you get your table. Relax. Soon enough, you'll be hogging your own banquette.

* Pastina, 2260 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 441-4655. Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $24-$48.

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