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AL MARTINEZ

Where Ron and Frank Eat

March 15, 1994|AL MARTINEZ

The last time I wrote about an Italian restaurant an anonymous caller who sounded faintly Mafioso threatened to hand me back my nose.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me he would somehow have to gain temporary possession of my nose in order to return it to me.

That evoked images of having the appendage ripped from my face, a situation I found ultimately unappealing. I decided, therefore, to abandon the business of critiquing Italian restaurants. It wasn't worth my nose.

But then I heard about Matteo's. It is a place where old comics, old singers and old presidents chow down on veal picatta, linguine and clams, osso buco and other savory collations of a Roman nature.

Old gangsters used to go there, too, but the best-known ones, like Mickey Cohen and Sam Giancana, have long since gone off to their eternal shootouts.

Even Jimmy Hoffa stuffed himself at Matteo's with pasta smothered in a spicy puttenesca sauce before he vanished in a cloud of cement.

Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Spiro Agnew . . . they have all eaten at Matteo's at one time or another, according to its owner, Matteo Giordano, who calls himself Matty Jordan.

Matty is a tough, growling 70-year-old who grew up in Hoboken across the street from Frank Sinatra and, in fact, was delivered into this world by Sinatra's mother, a midwife.

He is 5 feet, 8 inches tall, smokes three packs of Camels a day, is married to a beautiful young wife and runs the place like a combat tank officer. A photograph on the wall is doctored to make him look like George Patton.

*

Matteo's has been in business on Westwood Boulevard since 1963. It is an L.A. landmark, one of the last of the bistros to endure in the postmodern age of anguished cool.

I was introduced to it through bail bondsman Joey Barnum, who goes there just about every Sunday night, as do most of those who eat at Matteo's; people like Phyllis Diller, Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield and Henny Youngman.

"Every other night they go to Beverly Hills, where they can smoke," Matty said to me as we sat in one of the red imitation-leather booths. Red is the dominant color of the place, except for the chandeliers and the art on the wall, which is neopasticcio.

"We're dying because of the no-smoking laws, if you get my meaning. Whiskey is down 65%. I don't know what the hell we're going to do. You know what I mean? They started coming here on Sunday because every other place was closed. Now we're packed on Sundays and empty on Wednesdays."

I went to Matteo's when I heard Sinatra ate there. He sits in a corner booth surrounded by a warm glow of fame while others sneak glances and whisper of His Presence.

"He comes in with actor friends, the old guys," Matty said. "He used to be a son of a bitch and had a barricade around him. You understand what I'm saying? Eddie Pucci was his bodyguard. Now he gives autographs and says hello to people."

The first time I went to Matteo's, before I knew about Sinatra going there, I sat in that very same corner booth. Frank's booth.

"You know," I said to my wife Cinelli, "I thought I felt a kind of warmth radiating up through my behind, if you know what I mean."

"Leave it alone," she said.

*

Matteo's on a Sunday night is a noisy, friendly place. Table-hopping and waving at friends across the room are the order of the day. I met Cher's mom there once. Our conversation was not three minutes old when she informed me she was celibate. Cinelli smiled and said, "How nice," and led me away.

The producer Maurice Duke, who is full of bombast and goodwill, was there a few Sundays ago. So were Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who were sitting nearby.

"What're you eating?" Duke shouted to Reagan.

"Huh?" Reagan replied.

"WHAT'RE YOU EATING?" the Duke shouted even louder.

"Huh?" Reagan said again.

The Duke was ready to bellow at him a third time, by now determined to find out what the 40th President of the United States was eating, when Nancy whispered in her husband's ear and he replied amiably, "Chicken."

" Beckerman chicken!" Matty shouted from another part of the crowded dining room. Sidney Beckerman is also a producer. If you're famous and/or loyal, your name might appear on the menu along with your favorite dish.

Following the exchange, Reagan stood and shook the Duke's hand and everyone went back to eating.

While not always full of wit and philosophy, Matteo's is my kind of place. I like it. That may not be a ringing endorsement, but it ought to keep the nose on my face for a while . . . if you get my meaning.

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