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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Mamma Mia!

Nonni or no nonni, it's about the best small Italian kitchen around.

May 01, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Technically, Osteria Nonni should be called Osteria ex-Nonni. The original owners, who were grandparents, (nonni, in Italian) are no longer affiliated with the place.

But this great little Atwater Village trattoria comes close to being the perfect neighborhood restaurant, and it's definitely the best small Italian kitchen I've run across this year. Anyway, despite the departure of the nonni, it's still owned by one of the other founding partners. And the basic team of chefs hasn't changed since the opening eight years ago.

It's casual, and I mean casual. The waiters work this spare industrial space in T-shirts, and the chefs conduct their business in a display kitchen filled with pots and pans suspended from long hooks. You sit on hard little wooden chairs at too-small tables surfaced in shiny black granite.

But within moments of seating, you're brought a basket of the house pizza bread--puffy circles with crusty tops and yeasty bottoms--which is simply impossible to stop eating.

Its ideal complement is the one thing on this menu I'd call pricey, scamorza al forno. For $6.50, you get a thin sheet of delicately smoked mozzarella that is broiled onto a plate and then piled up with chopped tomatoes.

The best antipasti can be found under the heading fritti (fried things). The arancini alone are worth a detour. They're like oversized deep-fried pingpong balls with a terrific textural contrast of the golden crust and the creamy interior of tomato-infused rice, peas and mozzarella. Croquettes di patate are similar deep-fried patties of mashed potatoes mixed with salami and a hint of mozzarella. Calamari fritti are golden rings of fried squid on arugula, dressed with lemon juice and a light tomato sauce.

There are pizzas here, though none is more satisfying than a piece of the house bread with some scamorza. Pizza Margherita is the classic pizzeria version made with tomato sauce, fresh basil, mozzarella and Parmesan, and it's delicious, good enough to fight over. One night there was a pepperoni pizza with roasted peppers, a classic in its own right.

Osteria Nonni makes about a dozen pastas, all of them served beautifully al dente. Linguine alle vongole and zuppa is a great dish of pasta with clams, mussels and a killer seafood broth (zuppa); the seafood pasta is available without the zuppa for $2 less, but, trust me, the broth is worth paying extra for. The heaviest is meatball lasagna, but even it is relatively light. It's thin noodle sheets layered with ricotta cheese and tiny meatballs, which stand in for the usual veal ragu in the filling.

A zesty pasta puttanesca is topped with garlicky tomato sauce, Sicilian olives, capers and crushed red peppers. (It's available a la carte or as an automatic side dish with steamed trout.) Ravioli al magro are feather-light pasta pockets stuffed with minced spinach and ricotta cheese that you eat with melted butter and deep-fried sage; they're homemade and taste it.

At lunch, the menu has a few additions, mostly salads or Italian sandwiches. The simple green bean salad is just fresh beans with a light vinaigrette, but patate e tonno is a delicious variation on salade Nicoise: hot steamed potatoes, mixed baby lettuces, tuna, black olives and more of that vinaigrette. The sandwiches (panini), incidentally, are huge. Try panini del muratore, made with four grilled sausage patties, roasted sweet peppers and black olives in tomato sauce.

At dinner time, you can come to feast on the restaurant's crowning achievement, pollo arrosto, quite simply the best rotisserie chicken in the city. Are you listening, Zankou, Kokkekokko, Koo Koo Roo and all you other chicken restaurants? This is a golden, juicy, crisp, fragrant bird, redolent of garlic and rubbed liberally with rosemary all over--even under the skin.

As you might expect, desserts are the restaurant's one flaw. All they have is a workmanlike flan, a slightly soggy tiramisu and a handful of fruit sorbets. But if you've done things right and eaten your fill of, say, the house bread, linguine alle vongole and an order of pollo arrosto, you'll leave here as happy as a clam in white sauce.

BE THERE

Osteria Nonni, 3219 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles. Lunch Tue.-Fri., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m. daily. Dinner for two, $21-$32. Suggested dishes: scamorza al forno, $6.50; arancini, $1.75; linguine alla vongole and zuppa, $13; pollo arrosto, $10.50. Beer and wine. Street parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. (213) 666-7133.

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