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Staples from Naples

August 18, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

After a slew of meals at trendy trattorias (where the noise level is deafening and the food is assembly-line dull but nobody seems to notice or care), I fled to L.A. Trattoria and Antica Pizzeria on 3rd Street, where Naples-born Peppe Miele has been turning out authentic Neapolitan pizzas and delicious Southern Italian food for 10 years.

It's hard to resist the pizzas made here. In the open kitchen, the pizza chef slides supple rounds of dough into the white-tiled brick oven, embers glowing red at the back. With heat fierce enough to cook the pizza in just a few minutes, the dough emerges blistered, the fresh tomato sauce still liquid and inset with molten islands of mozzarella and a few leaves of sweet basil. This is pizza Margherita, said to have been created for Queen Margherita of Italy. Anchovy lovers may prefer pizza Napoletana, the same loose tomato sauce and tender mozzarella but garnished with anchovy filets. The pizza called "In Piazzetta a Capri" combines diced marinated tomatoes with cubed mozzarella, their flavors more distinct. The rustic pizza Carretiera is topped with ricotta cheese, black olives and wilted escarole, which I adore. But my favorite is the pizza capricciosa (which means capricious or whimsical), made with chunks of pale green fresh artichoke (Miele takes the time to trim and boil his own artichokes), marinated mushrooms, that light tomato sauce and ribbons of fragrant, salty prosciutto.

In Naples, pizza makers are so proud of their pies that they have formed organizations to preserve and protect Neapolitan-style pizza. In other words, only establishments that make their pizzas according to an association's guidelines have the right to display its sign. That means pizzas must be baked on the brick floor of an oven fired only with wood, that the dough must be made only with flour, natural yeast and water, that a Margherita, for example, must be topped only with good quality tomatoes, real mozzarella, Parmesan and fresh basil. Antica Pizzeria, with a second location about to open in Marina del Rey, claims to be the first American member of Associazione "Vera Pizza Napoletana."

It took me several visits to discover the restaurant's small rooftop terrace, where plumbago and ivy geraniums tumble over ochre and rose walls, a pink trumpet vine clambers up a corner and lights twinkle in the bushes. On a summer night, the terrace is an inviting retreat. Or you can eat in the pretty room downstairs, where walls are sponged the colors of Pompeian frescoes.

The pizzeria has its own menu, but you may also order anything on the trattoria's menu. (In the trattoria, however, pizza is available only as an antipasto.) Start with an assortment of fried appetizers spilled from a paper cone, which includes crunchy rice balls and zucchini blossoms filled with a little mascarpone (tempting enough to warrant ordering a plateful). The potato croquettes and generic polenta in the mix are less enticing. Or try the excellent beef carpaccio dressed with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon and garnished with arugula leaves draped with shavings of Parmesan. I also recommend the insalata tricolore of arugula, endive and radicchio and the salad of watercress, endive and radicchio studded with walnuts and Gorgonzola. And there's an appetizer of lemony octopus with garlic and parsley that is popular along the coast south of Naples.

Renowned for its pizza, Naples is also recognized for its love of pasta, so much so that Neapolitans used to be called mangiamaccheroni, or "pasta eaters." Miele has beautifully framed prints of a famous series of 19th century photos of Naples, including one depicting people scarfing down spaghetti at an ornate street stand. From the pizzeria menu, I like the penne with tomato, basil and melting mozzarella cubes. (Naples is, after all, mozzarella country; herds of buffalo in the countryside are the source of bufala mozzarella.) Also noteworthy is the rigatoni alla Pasqualona, tossed with sausage and wilted rapini; in this dish, though, the kitchen can occasionally be heavy-handed with the olive oil. Gnocchi alla Sorrentina taste almost exactly like the ones an elderly Roman friend used to make for me, more potato than flour and satisfyingly toothsome.

Like the trattorias in Italy, this trattoria is remarkable for its familial feeling. Its sleek good looks are enhanced by soft lighting, booths covered in a patchwork of color and those vintage images of Naples.

The no-nonsense waitress nods sagely when we order. She's Italian and knows that deciding what to eat is serious business. Several times, I choose the antipasti misti, a lovely composition of braised fennel, soft grilled eggplant, roasted peppers, braised carrots flecked with parsley, an austere potato salad and green beans in tomato.

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