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P IS FORPERFETTO : Also for Parmesan, Pasta and, in the San Fernando Valley, Posto

July 17, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

Scene: The kitchen of a big old apartment in Milan. It's a reunion of sorts, with at least 10 people gathered around the scarred table and more on the way. Much laughter, many toasts. Nobody is paying much attention to what's going on in the kitchen until Paola announces it's time to put on the pasta.

At that moment, four of the men jump up to supervise the cooking of the pasta. This is a serious business. They watch the pot carefully. They test from time to time, snatching a piece from the boiling water, blowing on it vigorously. As the pasta approaches al dente , that delightfully firm-tender state when it is considered perfectly cooked, the men increase their vigilance. Anxiously hovering over the pot, they debate whether the penne need a few seconds more. Finally, they agree: Perfetto. Perfect.

One doesn't have to travel to Italy to find pasta prepared with such regard. Not when there is Posto in Sherman Oaks.

In the Italian alphabet, P stands for prosciutto, parmigiano and pancetta. Most of all, it stands for pasta in all its myriad forms and shapes. Whether it is pasta asciutta , dried pasta, or egg-enriched fresh dough cut into ribbons or folded over a savory stuffing, pasta anchors every meal in every season.

And here in Los Angeles, P also stands for Posto, the third of Piero Selvaggio's Italian restaurants (following Valentino in Santa Monica and Primi in Rancho Park), a plain white room with pleated canvas blinds. The chef, Luciano Pellegrini, comes from Bergamo in northern Italy and is a man you can trust with pasta.

This was brought home to me when I took a bite of the black agnolotti offered as a special one night. Squid ink stained the fresh dough dark. The texture was sublime, silken and lithe. The circlets of dough held just a dab of filling, a beautiful mix of sea bass and shrimp. And the sauce, a discrete veil of white wine and butter, allowed the qualities of the pasta to shine through.

There is a definite art to making pasta like this. What's surprising is how few restaurants seem to understand it. First, the pasta has to be of good quality and cooked correctly. Homemade almost always seems to sound better than dried pasta, but in most places, pasta asciutta would be a much better choice. The fresh fettuccine or ravioli often turns out to be thick and leathery, overdone or undercooked, and overwhelmed with so much sauce, the dish threatens to turn into a soup. If the sauce lists more ingredients than you can count on one hand--watch out.

At Posto, Pellegrini gets fresh and dried pasta absolutely right. He turns out a classically simple rigatoni with tomato and basil or linguine with fresh clams. But the best pasta dishes I've had were part of the day's specials or tasting menu. (He'll also do a special pasta menu, if you like.) I've had a truly wonderful pennette set amid squid ink and tossed with cubes of branzino (striped bass), fresh tomato and capers. Mezzalune , little half-moons of pasta, were stuffed with pencil-thin asparagus and napped in sage butter and a graceful tomato sauce.

Handmade garganelli , a traditional pasta from the Emilia Romagna region made by rolling a square of fresh pasta dough over a ridged wooden comb, were topped with soft nuggets of goat-milk ricotta and wisps of broccoli florets.

All the appetizers beguile with their simplicity. Frico , lacy curls of Parmesan, are impressive with a glass of bone-dry Dosage Zero spumanti from Ca' del Bosco ($38). Prosciutto is the superb raw-cured ham from Parma, subtly sweet and salty, cut so thin you could read the pages of the Milan daily Corriere della Sera through it. A warm salad of white beans and shrimp on a bed of peppery arugula is another fine starter.

Posto excels at the kind of rustic main courses you might find in the Italian countryside: rabbit roasted with potatoes and rosemary (offered as a special or on request), a grilled butter flied chicken or mixed grilled sausages and lighter dishes like poached sea bass with olives, capers and leeks. But the roast pork loin wrapped in pancetta and served with a peperoncino -spiked balsamic-vinegar sauce remains my favorite secondi . Only a too-salty entree of quail in white wine and sun-dried tomatoes really failed.

While not as extensive as the famous wine list at Valentino, Posto's offers some unusual picks from Italian winemakers, such as the 1991 Nebbiolo d'Alba ($28) from Domenico Clerico and the 1989 Refosco from Giovanni Dri in Friuli ($33).

For dessert, try a refreshing semifreddo version of Sicilian cassata , with a frozen heart of pureed berries and cream, or the croccante semifreddo , a frozen ice cream cake laced with caramelized almonds and hazelnuts.

P also stands for piacere-- for pleasure.

*

Posto, 14928 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 784-4400. Closed Saturday and Sunday at lunch and all day Monday. Smoking at the bar. Dinner for two, food only, $43-$82. Five-course tasting menu, $44 - $48 per person. Corkage , $10.

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