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Little Green Factory : La Pergola's owner grows his own vegetables and flowers in 3 plots within walking distance of the Sherman Oaks restaurant.

April 09, 1993|JUDITH SIMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Judith Sims holds a certificate in horticulture from UCLA Extension.

When Tino Pettignano first opened his restaurant, La Pergola, five years ago in Sherman Oaks, he was disappointed with the fresh vegetables available from suppliers and markets. So he started growing his own. Today, he has three gardens, little green factories that keep flowers on his tables and ultra-fresh fruits and vegetables on customers' plates.

"One time I grew a 7 1/2-pound eggplant," Pettignano says, his hands shaping a giant form, his Italian-accented words tumbling out enthusiastically. "It was huge; with that one eggplant, I make 28 portions." In winter, Pettignano grows broccoli rapini (or broccoli raab), peas, fava beans, black cabbage (the seeds are sold in the United States as Lacinato kale), Maui onions, herbs and artichokes for his restaurant. "How much produce I get depend on the season. Sometimes we get more than we can use, then we give away."

Pettignano's gardens are all within walking distance of the restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. The closest two are on rented land, but the third is his--the back yard of a house where he will live when renovation is complete. But the garden in the vacant lot remains the showplace.

A large sign proclaiming "Tino's Garden" perches atop--what else?--a pergola, which supports climbing plants; at the other end of the garden, vigorous, gorgeous artichokes, fava beans and sunflowers are in full array, even under overcast skies. Tiny onions have poked up. Roses are covered in young burgundy-colored leaves.

The garden has become a neighborhood attraction, a source of pride. "The neighbors are very happy I make it so beautiful."

And he's pleased to have all those ingredients close at hand.

The second garden occupies the front and back yards of a house a few doors away from the vacant lot. Citrus trees, orchids and other plants in pots supply the restaurant with an endless seasonal display of fresh flowers and fruits. In the front yard, there are more roses and two peach trees, one covered in pink blossoms. "Is early, that one; is good, but this one is better," Pettignano says, gesturing toward the still flowerless late peach.

Half a block away, Pettignano's own back yard has been newly planted; the soil looks bare and flat, but around the edges are fruit trees and roses. "And soon I plant Muscat grapes." The back of the garage will be a greenhouse.

At first, he did all the gardening himself, but now he has two full-time helpers tending, planting and harvesting. For a while, he raised rabbits, too, but his customers did not appreciate fresh bunny on the menu, so he stopped. "Is too bad," he says, shaking his head at Americans' unsophisticated palates. "Rabbit is good."

Born in Messina, Sicily, Pettignano worked in his father's garden as a youth and later studied agriculture. His brother, who has a restaurant in Florence, started him in that business, but Pettignano left to sail the world on cruise ships. Then he came to California for a two-week visit; that was 14 years ago.

For his gardens, Pettignano buys most of his seeds at local nurseries, "but my brother also sends me seeds from Italy, and customers, they bring me seeds when they travel. Is good." On this dark spring day, he is already thinking about summer's bounty and favorite ways to use it: "One time I mix zucchini blossoms, red bell peppers, white eggplant and butternut squash and make the best ravioli. Everybody like."

A restaurant and gardens are apparently not enough to keep him busy, so he has opened a shop next to the restaurant, specializing in Italian ceramics. And he's working on a cookbook. "Because many people, they ask for recipe. They like natural ingredients, they want to know how to grow vegetables and how to cook with them and the herbs." Who better to tell them?

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