SHERMAN OAKS — "I've got visions of New York swimming in my head," said my friend, a transplanted New Yorker, as we entered the new Balducci's Trattoria.
Balducci's Trattoria specializes in can't miss, family-style Italian dishes, and give them an A for name recognition. The owners have a successful local chain called Milano's Italian Kitchen, but no relationship with the world-famous New York food store this place shares a name with. (Balducci's--minus the trattoria--is in Greenwich Village.)
Nonetheless, the buzz at the door each time I visited was the same: "Think these guys are part of the Balducci's in New York?" Indeed, a clever ploy. The name alone has probably brought in New Yorkers, such as my friend, on a search for the gorgeous produce and incredible salads for which the New York Balducci's is famous.
You won't find such fare in Sherman Oaks. But based on the size of these crowds, throngs of curious visitors have come back for seconds. Yes, Balducci's Trattoria is another of the multitude of Italian restaurants to open recently, but give them credit for having the formula down pat. I don't know a single restaurant that gives more for the dollar, a phenomenon that doesn't exactly engender complaints.
The restaurant is conventionally attractive, in an impersonal, corporate manner. You can see inside from the street, because the facade is nearly all glass, like an upscale office building. Interior walls are shaded in Tuscan browns, softening the glare of the diva lights and faux, abalone-shell chandeliers dangling from the high ceiling. One wall has even been stacked up with pasta boxes and tomato cans, an idea that clashes mightily with the high-tech aspects of this place.
One side of the restaurant ends in a snazzy bar area flanked by semi-private dining rooms with see-through French doors, ideal for eight or 10. The other, which leads to the busy kitchen, is a long, narrow space where diners sit either in the open or at elegant booths upholstered in dark, designer fabric.
No matter where you sit, your table will be swathed in butcher paper and adorned with jug wine (to be consumed on the "honor system"), a bottle of olive oil and a dish of puffy bread sticks. The restaurant is proud of the fact that four people can share one salad and one pasta and still need a doggy bag to take the leftovers home.
The "honor system" concept, though, is a trifle specious, since the canny waitresses can see exactly how much Chianti is missing from your bottle when the check is tallied. We had to haggle with ours, when we claimed we had only drunk five glasses. "Looks more like six to me," she said with a sly wink.
They should try charging for this food on the honor system. Four of us barely made a dent in such salads as Balducci's bean or Napoli salad, both heavy on the legumes and nearly complete meals in themselves.
Balducci's bean salad is an enormous bowlful of Tuscan white and French green beans, mixed with pungent whole imported olives, sliced red onion, wedges of ripe tomato and a balsamic vinaigrette.
Napoli salad is really a salade Nicoise in disguise, with a lone anchovy perched atop. Add tuna, potato and romaine lettuce to the bean salad, and presto: Naples, docks and all, in a bowl.
"Can't we stop here?" a friend asked plaintively. "My head is swimming." We had just polished off a piece of the restaurant's crusty, 14-inch pizza, this time topped with grilled eggplant, pepperoni and Gorgonzola cheese.
No one except me dared tangle with the oversized bowl of \o7 pasta e fagioli, \f7 smoky white beans and tube-shaped pasta brought forth in a white porcelain birdbath, er, bowl.
"No way," I replied. Imagine. We hadn't even had our pastas, foot-long platters of \o7 cavatelli\f7 -chewy, \o7 udon\f7 -like noodle fingers rich with crushed garlic, cooked broccoli and anchovies, or the towel-sized pasta sheets called \o7 pappardelle\f7 , layered with cheese and basil, or our ricotta-stuffed spinach ravioli, blanketed with a thick, creamy topping of prosciutto, mushroom and peas.
I paced myself, saving room for meats such as rotisserie chicken, T-bone steak and rack of lamb, all better than the properly chewy but bland pastas. My friend passed, appearing somewhat drained.
The chicken, certainly enough for four, is a crisp-skinned full bird, atop a pile of roasted potato wedges redolent of rosemary. The lamb rack features six full chops, lightly glazed with a reduced brown sauce, piled on a platter of savory roasted vegetables. The T-bone is Pavarotti-sized, 22 ounces big. Look under your steak, if you still have the appetite, for stewed pepper, mushroom and onion in a hearty tomato sauce.