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Where Old-Time Italian Meets New

Striking a balance between favorite dishes of the moment and the trusty standbys, Pastina Trattoria keeps waves of diners happy.

November 23, 2000|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pastina Trattoria is a flourishing place. There are people who dine here six nights a week, and on Friday and Saturday nights it's packed from 6:30 on. Eight years ago, a fine Cajun restaurant named Patout's died at this very same Westwood Boulevard address, right when Cajun food was supposedly fashionable.

So much for location, location, location as the key to success.

What's Pastina's secret? Los Angeles has gone wild for Italian food in the last decade, of course. And Pastina's waiters work harder than the usual L.A. waiters; they know the menu, volunteer good suggestions and have that Italian enthusiasm for seeing diners happy.

Basically, though, it serves good Italian food at a decent price (e.g., pastas $9-$13), and the menu strikes a balance between old-timers (eggplant parmigiana, linguine con vongole), current L.A. favorites (grilled chicken breast, tiramisu) and unusual dishes. It sort of sums this place up that it serves spaghetti with meatballs--but only as a special; on the regular menu, spaghetti comes with shrimp or chicken.

Mouth-Filling Appetizers

The appetizers include fried calamari, and also calamaretti alla Luciana--calamari (al dente in texture, and not necessarily small calamari, as the name suggests) cooked in a hot puttanesca sauce. Grilled shrimp (scampi alla griglia) come in a tomato sauce subtly dosed with mustard. Cacciota fritta con peperoni arrostiti is a mouth-filling appetizer: big slabs of roasted sweet pepper with a couple of balls of tangy breaded goat cheese.

Among the more prosaic choices, the antipasto misto platter is grilled eggplant and peppers, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. One night, the soup of the day, called a minestrone, turned out to be a pleasant white bean soup with a hint of ham.

The salads are all thoroughly tossed in a very little dressing. The best I've had was arugula con Parmigiano, the poetic clover-like flavor of the greens neatly played off against a slightly sweet dressing and slabs of shaved Parmesan.

There are a few thin-crust pizzas with mostly familiar toppings (pizza Romana is basically pizza Margherita with thin-sliced prosciutto thrown on as it leaves the oven). The pizza oven is also responsible for the table bread, a small round loaf divided in eight pieces that shows up right after you sit down.

Less Familiar Pastas Prove Irresistible

Pastina makes good gnocchi, not at all chewy or gluey; they come in a plain marinara sauce. It also makes standard-issue linguine ai frutti di mare, with calamari and the usual shellfish in a garlicky marinara. And the ravioli di formaggio, looking like eight eggs sunny side up in tomato sauce, have a light ricotta and parsley filling.

But it's the less familiar pastas everybody seems to find irresistible. Spaghetti con pollo e asparagi is mixed with bits of chicken breast and asparagus in a thin, garlicky tomato sauce. Farfalle al salmone has a rich cream sauce studded with richly smoky salmon. Fettuccine alla francescana sports another cream sauce, this one mixed with peas and powerfully aromatic porcini mushrooms.

Best of all, though the shrimp may have a distracting chlorine aroma, is spaghetti al Cognac, mixed with chopped shrimp (which have a rather crunchy texture) flambeed with Cognac, shallots and capers in a tiny bit of wonderful buttery "pink sauce."

The pastas overshadow the meat entrees a bit. There's a decent osso buco in a lot of tomato sauce, accompanied by a saffron risotto. On special, there might be a veal chop (not terribly thick) with portabello mushrooms and cream, or a grilled swordfish--a good but not outstanding piece of fish--topped with fried onions and balsamic vinegar.

At dessert time, there's likely to be a good but not distinctive tiramisu; a very distinctive torta with a fig and chocolate filling (the chocolate is very dark and strong, the fig more subtle, contributing an elusive fruit flavor) between layers of pasta frolla; and a particularly luscious torta di nonna--the almonds and pine nuts are dominated by a lemon layer almost like lemon curd.

Location, location, location, not.

* Pastina Trattoria, 2260 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 441-4655. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $41-$64.

What to Get: caciotta fritta, calamaretti alla Luciana, scampi alla griglia, arugula con Parmigiano, spaghetti al Cognac, fettuccine alla francescana, farfalle al salmone, fig and chocolate torta, torta di nonna.

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