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Safe Haven

November 05, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

WHICH ITALIAN RESTAURANT IN SOUTHERN California feels most like Italy? It's not Vincenti or Valentino. It's not Toscana. It's not Drago or Tanino and certainly not Il Fornaio. Which restaurant is cited by Italians as most like home? Actually, there are two. Madeo in West Hollywood and Ristorante di Giorgio Baldi in Santa Monica. Curiously, both are owned by restaurateurs from Forte dei Marmi on the Tuscan coast, just north of Viareggio. And they both worked together at Los Angeles' late, lamented Il Giardino, arguably the first local restaurant to introduce authentic northern Italian cuisine to L.A. in the early '80s. Giorgio's is more a country trattoria, while Madeo is more ristorante.

When Bruno Vietina and brother Alfio opened Madeo in 1985, they chose an ugly duckling of a space. Below street level on Beverly Boulevard, it's rather like the Greenwich Village basement apartment my Aunt Kim had in her bohemian days. Nevertheless, it's a honey of a spot. Because ICM once had offices upstairs, Madeo has long been an industry haunt, doing just as much, if not more, business at lunch as at dinner.

Once inside, past the bar with the TV tuned to sports, you'll notice the cottage cheese ceiling and the clunky chairs, and then forget all about them. The curved booths are perfect for dinner for two or four. The waiters are Italian, and they're professional and warm without going over the top.

It's one of the places where women dress up, especially at night. I glimpse a rope of pearls, an antique coral necklace from Capri, a natural blond with her hair worn in a twist. A large family table bubbles over with festiveness. Another table is hosting an informal wine tasting, and one of the guests wanders over to Vietina, asking, "Are you a wine connoisseur?" Vietina waves in the direction of his son, the suave maitre d', saying he's the one. Nevertheless, the wine buff is eager to share. "This is something good," he insists, proffering a glass of wine.

Madeo isn't trendy or new, but it is a restaurant that's become a haven for its many regulars--not so much for the food as for its warm atmosphere and predictability. When a beautifully dressed couple enters, the younger Vietina asks, "No daughters tonight?" No daughters. "It's good to see you. Were you out of the country?" He knows his clientele that well.

Italians saunter in late, completely at ease, shrugging off their English like a pair of too-tight shoes. They're such regulars that they don't even look at the menu. After a couple of visits, you won't have to either, because it hardly ever changes, except for the short list of specials, which don't vary all that much either.

First comes a complimentary plate of what they call focaccia. It's plain pizza dough rolled out extremely thinly and blistered in a wood-burning oven. I appreciate, too, that our waiter doesn't try to pour me a pool of olive oil, which is something you'd never see in Italy. Bread comes plain, basta. We can't let that wood-burning oven sit idle, so we order pizza. Margherita is always the best test. This one looks beautiful, molten pools of mozzarella against red tomato sauce embellished with a few basil leaves. The crust, though, doesn't have much taste, and the cheese quickly solidifies. Still, it's better than most.

Among the appetizers, eggplant Parmigiana is very nice. An unruly heap of sliced fried eggplant cloaked in a fresh tomato sauce topped with melted cheese, it's light enough that it doesn't ruin your appetite for the secondi. There's also a fine version of pasta e fagioli, a thick, tweedy mix of brown beans and a scattering of thick-cut tube pasta. Ask for a swirl of good Tuscan olive oil to garnish it, and then grind some black peppercorns over it.

Ribollita, the hearty Tuscan soup thickened with a slice of bread and "reboiled," is awfully pallid here, laced with beans and cabbage basically.

Carpaccio is not Madeo's best moment either. The classic thinly sliced raw beef is watery and tasteless, and the salmon carpaccio is a bit gristly.

What I did love one night was the special calamari with bietole, or Swiss chard, cooked to a warm, comforting stew. If only the cook had held back on the salt. Ingredients are not always top-notch: I've had better prosciutto than the limp rags of cured ham that came with the melone.

As for pasta, the one to order is veal-stuffed ravioli in walnut sauce. Delicate little packets of pasta are cloaked in a silky sauce studded with walnut bits. This I would come back for, again and again. I wish I could say the same for the spaghetti with lobster. One night the pasta was somehow al dente but gummy, which may be a sign that it was precooked. A thick tomato sauce didn't help, and the lobster could have been frozen for all the flavor it exhibited. The kitchen must use some shortcut to cook the risotto, because the texture is oddly pasty.

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