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In the Kitchen With Italy's Great Santinis : Cucina: After 42 years atop the restaurant business in Italy, Bruna Santini comes to America and finds that pasta is difficult to translate.

March 17, 1994|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

Bruna Santini is famous for her pasta. Not just among the residents of Runate--her small hometown just north of Parma and roughly midway between Venice and Milan--but all over Italy.

Dal Pescatore, the 30-seat family restaurant started by her father, is considered by many to be the best restaurant in the entire country. This year's "Guida Gambero Rosso," one of the two top restaurant guidebooks in Italy, raves: "The excellence of this restaurant can't be measured just by the high level of every single category."

The book's main competitor, "Le Guide de l'Espresso," isn't arguing. It awarded the restaurant 19 out of 20 possible points, noting: "This happy island of hospitality and eating is among the most welcoming that exists today. The Santinis are safeguarding the secrets of a cuisine that is genuine and exalted."

But right now Bruna, who is on a visit to the United States, is genuinely puzzled. This is the first time she has made pasta with American ingredients, and things are not going according to plan.

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She started in the usual way: shaping a volcano of flour, beating eggs (four whole eggs and two extra yolks) in a well in the center, gradually pulling the walls of the volcano down into the beaten eggs. But at the point where a shiny, smooth ball of dough should have formed, she has a dry, cracking lump. It's the difference in the flour. She grabs another egg and beats it into the dough. That's somewhat better, but still not what she wants.

"It should be bella e lucida , beautiful and shining," she says. But to her mind it is neither. "The flour in Italy is much softer and the pasta is much lighter. The egg yolks are a different color too. When we make pasta, we use our own eggs and it's almost the same color as this." She points to a deep-orange winter squash puree that will go into the filling. To understand how profoundly disturbing this might be, you have to remember that fresh pasta is one of the cornerstones of Bruna Santini's existence. She figures she has rolled out an average of 10 pounds of it almost every day for the last 42 years--her tortelli di zucca are legendary.

Still, you don't get the feeling that Bruna is one to go crying over spoiled pasta. She has the mien of a dogged terrier. Once a job is finished, she moves on to the next, rarely talking.

The talking she leaves to her son Antonio, with whom she shares kitchen duties in his friends Marvin and Judy Zeidler's sunny Santa Monica kitchen. The Zeidlers, owners of several prominent Los Angeles restaurants, met the Santinis during a trip to Italy 15 years ago and struck up a friendship that continues to this day.

*

Back in Italy, Bruna runs the restaurant with Antonio and his wife, Nadia. Antonio takes care of the front; the women cook: Nadia makes appetizers, main courses and desserts; Bruna does the pasta. Antonio's father, Giovanni, is semi-retired, but he still makes the bread, takes care of the fish and tends the vegetable and herb gardens. Much more than a greeter at Dal Pescatore, Antonio acts almost as the curator--a combination of maitre d', sommelier, manager and culinary conscience. "L'Espresso" describes him as "the charismatic leader" of the restaurant.

One thing's for sure: Antonio's a good shopper. At the Santa Monica Growers Market earlier in the day he wades through the crowds, inspecting every stall, picking up what looks best and bringing it close to his nose for a good, deep sniff. He does all this despite the fact that there are probably more people waiting in line for grapefruit than live in his hometown.

He makes one quick charge through the market, determining exactly what is there and which produce he likes best, then he goes back to mop up, buying what he wants. Everything gets the smell test--even spinach. And when he buys a bag of mixed lettuces, he picks through the bin, selecting them leaf by leaf. He's most impressed by the fruit--the strawberries and dates in particular.

In the kitchen, he acts almost as a master of ceremonies: determining the type and order of dishes, explaining details of preparation and waxing eloquent in Italian on the finer points of culinary history or theory, while his mother demonstrates.

*

Antonio decides we should start with a simple early-spring frittata. Bruna quickly chops green onions fine and sets them to melt in a saute pan with butter. She adds chopped asparagus and spinach, then a touch of bouillon powder. To serve six, she beats seven eggs together with salt and pepper and 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Over medium heat, she works the mixture as if for scrambled eggs, pushing in the sides and letting the liquid egg run onto the pan. When the whole thing is just about set, she turns the frittata out onto a pan lid and then slides it back into the pan on the other side. While it cooks a little longer, she keeps flipping the frittata back out to check for doneness. It's finished in not much more time than it took to read this.

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