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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Going Back to the Basics

From waiters who care to a tomato sauce to die for, Pasadena's new La Fornaretta does the little things right.

September 18, 1997|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So I'd spilled a drop of tomato sauce. Big deal; drops happen. But when the waiter brought my espresso, it evidently pained him to see a diner having to take coffee with a drop of sauce staring him in the face. He quietly folded a corner of butcher paper over the offending spot.

The most striking thing about La Fornaretta might not be the food but the service. We're so used to being waited on by students and actors that it's a shock to see waiting treated like a real job.

Still, the most striking thing about this new Pasadena spot is probably the food after all. Though cookbook sales show southern Italian food has outgrown its unjust reputation as crude and boring, good Sicilian restaurants are rare in the Southland. But that's La Fornaretta, starting with your loaf of schiacciata alla Siciliana, an oily, brown-crusted flatbread that's like focaccia toying with the idea of being a doughnut.

It's easy to fill up on schiacciata, but don't until you see how large the portions tend to be here. Mushrooms Caruso--sliced mushrooms in a meaty-tasting sauce spiked with garlic and anchovies--is one appetizer you'd have to split with somebody.

The appetizer list has some fairly familiar salads, such as mozzarella Caprese and bandiera Italiana (radicchio, arugula, endive and fennel), and some unfamiliar ones. Insalata selvaggia, for instance, a mild, charming assembly of baby spinach, baby beets, ricotta salata and toasted pine nuts. For insalata papale, romaine is tossed with pecans, currants, olives and a loud blue cheese.

La Fornaretta doesn't scorn the basics. Even the humble green salad is carefully done. The romaine is sliced, tossed in a garlicky vinaigrette and heaped up with a liberal sprinkling of grated cheese.

And the simplest, cheapest pasta on the menu--spaghetti al sugo--is absolutely worth ordering because of the wonderful tomato sauce. You know from its bright red color, not to mention its rich, snappy tomato flavor, that it's freshly made. (Personally, I wouldn't order the spaghetti with meatballs; they're all too authentic, so heavily breaded they have a waxy texture, though the flavor is helped out a little by a few currants and pine nuts.)

The restaurant doesn't waste a terrific sugo like this on just one or two dishes. It's mixed with hanks of angel hair pasta along with garlic, basil and a bit of arugula, and with a generous plate of tortellini. It stars in spaghetti alla puttanesca, punched up with olives, lots of garlic and capers and highly flavored bits of prosciutto. This is about the jazziest, most mouth-filling puttanesca sauce around.

There are tomato-less pastas too. A sweet, mild spaghetti alla carbonara, to which the combination of prosciutto and caramelized onions gives an oddly truffle-like scent. Linguine con vongole--or sometimes, on special, linguine tutte mare, with mussels, squid and scallops as well as clams in a seafood broth with a beautiful balance of garlic and saffron.

One dish you don't find every day is the archaic pasta alla sfincioni. This is just pasta (the thick spaghetti known as perciatelli, as I had it) coated with darkly toasted bread crumbs scented with a touch of garlic, saffron and anchovy; sweet, earthy and surprising.

Pasta is not the only destination of tomato sauce. La Fornaretta makes a clean, well-balanced version of eggplant Parmigiana--not overbreaded (in fact, not breaded at all), with just a bit of cheese and a lot of that rich tomato sauce.

You're liable to find some tomato sugo on pizza, of course. La Fornaretta makes excellent pizza with a yeasty, medium-thick crust and good mozzarella. Incidentally, those bready meatballs are available on pizza, and they're much better that way than with spaghetti because they've been sliced and fried, which gives them a little more flavor.

The pizza list is a study in itself with more than 20 choices, from dal bosco (mushrooms) to finocchietto (fennel and arugula) and favignana (tuna, capers and olives). All the pizzas are available at lunch, when the salad and pasta selection is reduced somewhat to make room for a couple of panini.

La Fornaretta doesn't concentrate on dessert, and I'd be surprised if more than half the diners find they have room after a meal here. But sometimes it has a tiramisu with a little more chocolate flavor than usual or a dense, ricotta-filled walnut cake with strawberries.

And now it's time for that espresso. Uh-oh. This time I spilled some strawberries.

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BE THERE

La Fornaretta Authentic Sicilian Restaurant and Pizzeria, 30 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. (626) 585-9088; fax 585-9074. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; dinner 2:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 3-11 p.m. Friday, 5-11 p.m. Saturday, 4-10 p.m. Sunday. Beer and wine. City parking structure next door. All major credit cards. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $27-$50. What to Get: insalata selvaggia, mushrooms Caruso, eggplant Parmigiana, spaghetti alla puttanesca, pasta alla sfincioni, pizza alla fungiazza.

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