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Rex Still Reigns

August 04, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

A sharp whistle pierces the room. startled, we look up from our pasta, toward the grand staircase where a young man kneels before his blushing girlfriend, proposing right then and there. She nods yes. He slips a ring on her finger. They embrace. The room erupts in applause, and as the starry-eyed couple make their way down the steps and across the room to their table, we smile and raise our glasses in tribute.

Rex has always been the perfect special-occasion restaurant, a place to celebrate a birthday, an anniversary, a romance. As vividly as I recall last year's marriage proposal, I remember lunching here with several friends the week 15 years ago that Mauro Vincenti opened this unequivocably Italian restaurant. There was nothing remotely like it in Los Angeles--or California. We were thrilled by the 1928 Oviatt Building's architecture and its sumptuous Art Deco details, by the Lalique glass, the opulent banquettes and polished granite tabletops. Tuxedoed waiters swept by in flotillas, bearing intricate antipasti and primi under silver cloches. We drank two bottles of Angelo Gaja's ruby Barbaresco from the then-unknown wine region of Piedmont and lingered late into the afternoon, lulled into a feeling of good fortune and well-being by a meal that was stunningly delicious.

Rex il Ristorante introduced L.A. to Italian dining in the grand style. In 1981, when Vincenti unveiled this landmark restaurant, downtown was enjoying a renaissance and the city was on the brink of a restaurant boom. All that's faded away now, yet Rex hangs in at its difficult locale: Weekend reservations can be hard to come by; other evenings, only a few diners fill the imposing space. Vincenti, however, is as tenacious and as dedicated to his cause as Don Quixote. He's had restaurants before--first Mauro's in Glendale, then Fennel and Pazzia, and now Alto Palato in West Hollywood--but probably none as close to his heart as this one.

While Rex is one of the most expensive restaurants in L.A., it is, to my mind, one of the best Italian restaurants in the country. And this year, with a new chef, Rex is in top form. Gino Angelini, who has been here since November, is leaving most other local chefs in the dust. At the stoves since he was 14, the 43-year-old chef has cooked for prime ministers, heads of state--even the Pope. Vincenti hired him away from the Grand Hotel Des Bains in Riccione, south of Rimini on Italy's Adriatic coast. When he arrived, Angelini executed the menu that Vincenti and previous chef Odette Fada (now at San Domenico in New York City) created.

But now Angelini has introduced his own menu of sublimely elegant contemporary Italian cuisine, brilliantly cooked classics and meats roasted in the new rotisserie. A meal at Rex can start with rosy slices of gently salted prosciutto di Langhirano paired with crunchy shallots in vinegar, a terrific combination of flavors, or with an enticing salad of fresh corn, sweet peppers and eggplant fenced in by green beans. Delicately smoked striped bass, moist and plush, is garnished with curls of shaved bottarga, the pressed salted roe of tuna from Sardinia, for a ravishing first course. Two other antipasti are outstanding: a bowl of farro, or spelt, the nutty brown grain that fed the Roman legions, studded with sweet langoustine and swirled with a heady vegetable broth, and a dish of sea scallops with seared foie gras and golden zucchini blossoms, their slight bitterness a striking contrast to the richness of the scallops and goose liver.

Both Angelini and Vincenti have an abiding respect for quality ingredients. If you eat pigeon at Rex, it is full-flavored and astonishing. Duck, ribboned with fat, is fabulous. Beef is Angus, aged a bit longer than usual to concentrate its flavors. When Roman-born Vincenti is not at the restaurant, he's back in Italy, tracking down suppliers for extra-virgin olive oil, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, musky dried porcini, aceto balsamico that's been aged so long in a series of ever-smaller casks that it pours like black molasses. Vincenti's attention extends even to humble dried pasta, which he imports from a small producer named Latini. Made from heirloom varieties of wheat and pressed through antique brass molds, the result is spaghetti or spaghetti alla chitarra (so-called because it used to be cut over strings stretched across a wooden box) with an extraordinary texture, the better to hold the sauce.

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