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Restaurant Review : Fama: Not Grandma's Italian Fare

October 28, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Walking north on 4th Street in Santa Monica, I mutter: "I'm pretty sure Fama's up here--at least I think it is. . . ." The street hit hard in the January earthquake hasn't looked the same since. Just when I'm ready to give up, I spot a message spray-painted on a boarded-up storefront: "Yo! Fama Open Every Night," and an arrow pointing up the street.

Mary Fama, who runs the establishment with Hans Rockenwagner, confesses to this small act of enterprising graffiti. "When they boarded up the store next door, it looked like Fama was boarded up," she says. "I ran right across the street to the crafts store for a can of paint. But customers still call and ask when we're reopening."

Back in 1989, this snazzy little cafe was on the cutting edge of restaurant chic: extravagant, playful, deliberately noisy. The food was allegedly home-cooked Italian--spaghetti and sausages as Mary Fama's Italian grandmother, Sally, had made them. But there were always some wild homemade pastas (shocking green jalapeno rotellini) and more than the occasional French flourish.

At 5 years old, Fama now has white parachuting suspended from the high ceilings as a kind of plump, noise-absorbing, ambience-softening cloud cover. Todd D'Alessandro, a young Culinary Institute of America graduate who cooked at Eureka, now mans Fama's kitchen--and there's not a lot on the menu that grandma might make.

Presentation is invariably lovely, but the food is sometimes excellent, sometimes off target. I ate at Fama several times with the same person, and everything she ordered was excellent. My food was OK. She now loves Fama. I'm fond of it, with qualifications.

The menu changes a little week to week, which may explain why the kinks aren't out of every dish. One week, arugula is matched with small curls of delicious smoked salmon and gaufrette potatoes lodged in daubs of creme fraiche: It's all good, but what's with those silly potatoes? The next week's arrangement is more satisfying: The arugula is served beside a flat map of the salmon crisscrossed with herbed yogurt and avocado puree.

Caesar salad, made with fresh leaves from the heart of the romaine, comes with terrific little crisps of baked parmesan cheese, but needs a juicier dressing.

An appetizer of assorted dips, supposedly for two, includes a tangy whip with codfish roe, airy hummus, and a good smoky melitzana or eggplant spread. Four of us went through two baskets of pita bread and still didn't swab the plate clean.

Nix on mixed seafood risotto, however: too winey and briney. Have your salmon grilled instead, on a dreamy bed of corn, white beans and chopped vegetables surrounded by a moat of bright orange chile sauce.

Fama's pasta has a sturdy, homemade tensile strength. After you've eaten all the big, meaty wild mushrooms off your fettucine, you may notice that the pasta is actually a little oily, too oily--even for truffle oil. Lighter is the sweet grilled Louisiana shrimp on spaghettini with roasted garlic, spinach and a hint of hot chile.

One week, there's an alluring grilled chicken breast with green pesto-infused mashed potatoes and a pork tenderloin served with a potato cake fried so hard, a fork can't penetrate it. The next week, the green mashed potatoes have moved to the pork and the chicken has polenta.

Don't balk at the confusingly named "grilled schawarma kabob." (Shawarma, generally a marinated meat roasted on a vertical spit, is decidedly distinct from a kebab.) Semantics aside, this mandala of minted yogurt, pita points, lamb chunks and quenching tabbouleh is homey and satisfying, although the lamb should have been rarer.

Except for a memorable nectarine and blueberry pie, desserts are anti-climactic. I like hazelnuts in a crisp's topping, but the pear and cranberry filling doesn't sing. Pumpkin pie is actually a skimpy wedge of custard on a soggy crust. Bread pudding, a square of petalled bread slices, is dry. The "rich caramel custard," however, is indeed rich.

After five years, Fama has one thing down cold: The service is just right--friendly, informal and perfectly attentive.

* Fama, 1416 4th Street, Santa Monica (310) 451-8633. Open seven nights for dinner. Beer and wine served. Visa, MasterCard, American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $42 to $63.

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