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Whining and Dining : Its No Longer Enough to Know the Hottest Chefs and the Trendiest Cuisines--For True Foodie Status, You Have to Bend Them to Your Will

October 30, 1994|KAREN STABINER | Contributing editor Karen Stabiner is writing a book on physician Susan Love and the UCLA Breast Center

Pasquale and Anna Morra consider themselves accommodating people, but this was too much to ask. The man at the corner table wanted penne arrabiata with a twist: He wanted smoked mozzarella added to the spicy tomato sauce. And some clams. And some sun-dried tomatoes. All mixed together.

Pasquale listened glumly to the order. He tried to convince the customer that it was a mistake on several levels. The sauce didn't need smoked cheese. Even if it did, he would never combine cheese and shellfish. And the sun-dried tomatoes were too strong. Wouldn't the man reconsider?

The diner held his ground. He knew what he wanted, and what he emphatically didn't want was a lecture about regional authenticity or appropriate flavor combinations. The customer, after all, is always right.

Morra retreated to the kitchen at Da Pasquale, the Beverly Hills trattoria he and his chef wife, Anna, opened in 1989, and confessed his anguish to her. He knew it was wrong to serve such a dish, but the man wanted it and nothing else. If he fed the guy, he would hate himself. If he didn't feed the guy, he was going to send an angry man out into the world to bad-mouth his restaurant.

He considered his wife an artist in the kitchen, but he had a business to run. Morra had to compromise. Ten minutes later he appeared at the man's table with two plates--one bowl of penne arrabiata with a reasonable amount of smoked cheese mixed in, and a separate side order of clams and sun-dried tomatoes.

"Here," he said. "Now I'm going to turn my back and go into the kitchen. You can do whatever you want." At which point the man mixed his customized dish and devoured it.

This is the world of menu manipulation, a far cry from the half-caff two-step immortalized in Steve Martin's comedy "L.A. Story." In the movies, food tweakers are a joke, whether it's Meg Ryan being prissy in "When Harry Met Sally. . . ." or Jack Nicholson demanding a chicken salad sandwich on toast, hold the chicken salad, in "Five Easy Pieces."

The real world is not quite so adorable. Demanding diners have descended on what remains of Los Angeles' recession-ravaged eating scene. They're no longer looking for the hot chef or the snooty menu. They don't need to have an intimate relationship with either the cook or his dishes. Status, now, comes from knowing what you want and getting it. Today's diner is after personal satisfaction, however idiosyncratic, however weird. That's the point. He wants what he wants, centuries of culinary wisdom notwithstanding. He wants to be acknowledged; he wants to be unique.

It is decidedly a buyers' market. It is the era of what Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino, Primi and Posto, calls " Chicca --the little things people want to do." Let the restaurateur beware.


The sauce-on-the-side movement began innocently enough with people like my mother, who started families in the antiseptic 1950s and came to value clean consistency above all else. Machine-cut frozen green beans were a dependable status symbol, proof that moms had more important things to do with their time than wash, top and tail the real thing. We had conquered nature--cleaned it, sliced it on the diagonal in absolutely uniform little chunks, and wedged it into a nice little white box that fit quite snugly in a stack of other nice little white boxes. Forget language. What set us apart from the apes was frozen produce.

Predictability was patriotic, too. Plain meat and potatoes were aggressively American, a hefty emblem of the middle class, proof that life was better here. Maybe our immigrant ancestors had to smother a tough cut of meat in an ethnic sauce, but not us. It was slab cuisine: Heat the meat, thaw the sides, and eat. We distrusted any chef who tried to mask the entree with a sauce--did he think we couldn't afford the very best?

And when the offspring of the convenience generation went off to college, what did the '60s generation get? Groovy vegetarian grub, mile-high sandwiches that were three-quarters alfalfa sprouts and nothing that required the execution of a fellow mammal. They rebelled against soulless technology and made pals with the planet again. It was the era of conscience cuisine.

By the time the '70s were over, we were crazy for a good meal.

Perhaps it was all that extremism that led to the binge mentality of the 1980s. Everyone who was anyone had to have a favorite high-end restaurant, where they dined so often that they didn't even need to open the menu. They knew all the dishes by heart and made a point of being blase about things like skate wing and sweetbreads.

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