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FIRST AND FOREMOST : For Sophisticated and Authentic Trattoria Cooking, Primi Is Second Fiddle to None

January 02, 1994|S. Irene Virbila | With this issue, S. Irene Virbila, who has written guest reviews for the magazine, assumes the post of restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times. A former cook and restaurant owner, Virbila has written widely on food and wine for international publications and is the author of several books on food. She will write reviews in alternate issues of the magazine through mid-February, then appear on a weekly basis

In Italy, I can go back to the same restaurant or trattoria two, three, even 10 years later and expect to find the same waiter, the same cooks and the very same menu at the same time of year. Here, restaurants change--their names, their owners, their cuisines--virtually overnight. Chefs change places as fast as in a game of musical chairs, and everything seems to be in season year round.

In 1986, when Piero Selvaggio opened a second restaurant on Pico Boulevard, this consummate Italian restaurateur had a startling idea: deconstruct the sacrosanct Italian sequence of courses and zero in on the most interesting part, the primi , or first courses. In the early days at Primi, $25 bought a series of 10 little dishes orchestrated to change with the season and the whimsy of the chef. This was high-class grazing, Italo-Los Angeles style. And a meal at Primi resembled an album of vivid snapshots collected from all of Italy.

Seven years later, Primi is different. The menu has reverted to a more traditional format. Now you can order from a menu that reads antipasto, primi --and yes, secondi or main courses, some very substantial ones, I might add, like the lamb alla cacciatora braised with a red-wine reduction or the succulent falling-off-the-bones osso buco served in a rough-textured sauce with soft pillows of gnocchi on the side. But it also offers a particular American flexibility in picking and choosing your way through the menu. In Italy, you might have to work up the courage to insist on no main course. Here, I assure you, the waiter is not going to raise an eyebrow.

That's because at Primi, the casual sidekick to his more formal restaurant, Valentino, Selvaggio encourages his customers to eat exactly what they want to eat. And after the thrill of Primi's initial premise wore off, what they wanted more than a parade of brilliant, small tastes was sophisticated trattoria cooking, traditional dishes "revisited," along with a few surprises from the talented young chef Enrico Glaudo thrown into the mix.

If you feel like a classic insalata caprese of tender mozzarella, fresh tomato and basil leaves followed by a bowl of the deep and seductively flavored brodetto of baby octopus--no meat, no dessert--no problem. Or if you want grilled chicken or shrimp on top of a Caesar salad or some other such concoction, the cooks may groan, but they'll do it. Risotto made without butter? That's for the very brave to request. (Such an idea cuts a northern Italian chef to the quick.)

When you order pasta at Primi now, instead of four or five exotically stuffed tortellini or ravioli, you get an entire plate of hand-pleated green and white farfalle or dusky garganelli infused with squid ink, perfectly cooked and sauced. The pasta special one night, penne sauced with mascarpone, peas and shreds of prosciutto, doesn't sound exciting, but it was faultlessly executed and immensely satisfying. I had just about despaired of finding pasta in this country treated with such respect and simplicity.

At lunchtime, it can be hard to get a table because the restaurant functions as the de facto commissary for the 20th Century Fox studio down the road. Everyone arrives in a rush at 1 p.m. Manager Donato Poto seems to know every other party and whether they prefer the main dining room or the garden room. The first offers a mirrored ceiling (beware, those of the artfully concealed thinning hair) and a view of the cooks at work behind a wooden sculpture the staff has dubbed " osso buco " for its resemblance to a veal shank. The garden room somehow manages to be considered hip despite its resemblance to a parking lot set with tables and partially covered with a quilted cloth roof.

At lunch, every other table seems to be splitting the straightforward Caesar salad of torn romaine tossed in a pungent, balanced dressing. But grilled scallops on a bed of salad drizzled with olive oil would make more sense with darker, more assertive greens. The soup of beans, barley and corn tastes as if it was hastily assembled, the flavors barely developed.

It becomes evident that few people actually order more than one course when the waiter clears away everything after our primi . There is a long gap before our main entrees come; the kitchen is overwhelmed with orders. When the old-fashioned lasagna with Bolognese sauce arrives, it is gummy and overcooked, but the handmade ravioli stuffed with porcini and tossed with a lightly fragrant tomato-and-basil sauce is quite wonderful. And the thick, grilled tuna steak in a sauce flecked with tomato and hot pepper is accompanied by chewy grains of couscous, a reference to the Arabic influence in Sicilian cuisine.

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