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Pasta Perfect

February 04, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA

For all the lost souls on jury duty downtown wondering where they can possibly get good Italian food and still get back to the courthouse by 1:30, here's one address that will give them a brisk 10-minute walk each way and a restorative lunch before they return to the wheels of justice. Vivere Ristorante is only a few months old, yet it's been discoverd by enough of the courthouse crowd, mostly lawyers and judges, to fill the large dining room weekdays. Placido Domingo, artistic director of the L.A. Opera, eats here, too. Nowhere else downtown can you find such authentic Italian cooking.

At lunch Vivere, which means "to live" in Italian, adds panini and pizza to some of the antipasti and pasta items that appear on the dinner menu, although at slightly lower prices. These are true Italian panini, or sandwiches, not overstuffed American versions. A model of the genre is the panino with prosciutto and provolone. Made on a large, round flatbread called piadina, it's cut in quarters, the easier to pick up, with molten cheese and good prosciutto inside. On top is a nicely dressed salad of greens, and you get a handful of thick-cut golden roast potatoes. It's a steal at $7.25. There are also panini filled with grilled vegetables, white albacore tuna or marinated chicken breast and roasted sweet peppers.

Despite the lack of a wood-burning oven, the pizzas are comparable to the ones you might find at any neighborhood pizzeria in Italy. They're thin-crusted and not overloaded with toppings, which is the way Italians prefer their pizza. Along with the basic pizza Margherita, there's quattro stagioni (four seasons), in which the four quadrants of the pizza each have a different topping: eggplant, artichokes, zucchini and sausage. Capricciosa is a "capricious" mix of several different ingredients, in this case, roasted red and yellow peppers, dark kalamata olives, finely sliced prosciutto and the occasional mushroom. Add a nicely dressed salad of organic lettuce, or, even better, the insalata ai frutti di mare, a lovely seafood salad of steamed mussels in the shell, shrimp and calamari with olives, sweet peppers and cucumbers, all in a sprightly lemon-drenched vinaigrette.

At dinner time, Vivere does a brisk pre-theater business. It's just across from the Music Center, so close that you can walk to the performance. But after 7:30, sadly, it's almost empty, except for the residents of the high-rise apartment complex across the street, who seem to be using Vivere as their private restaurant. Lucky for them. If the restaurant is not filled, though, the banal decor and nondescript setting become all too evident. The only thing that personalizes it are the quirky paintings of fish-eyed people seen through martini and gimlet glasses.

Vivere may not be the best choice for romance, but it definitely is for food and professional service. Owner Orazio Afrento is a familiar face from Drago in Santa Monica. He was the best waiter there for years, before he left to open Cucina Paradiso (now closed) in Redondo Beach with three Drago co-workers.

At Vivere, the warm and energetic Afrento seems to be everywhere at once. He's there at lunch and dinner, greeting you at the door, running interference with the kitchen, reciting the fish special along with the footnote that he himself picked it out at the fish market that morning. The restaurant doesn't have its wine license yet, so he encourages patrons to bring their own, which he'll comment on and pour with the panache of a seasoned sommelier.

Listen to his advice: If he offers to put together an antipasti misti (mixed antipasto plate) for the table, take him up on it. It's a generous plate of grilled zucchini and eggplant, good quality prosciutto di Parma, maybe some salami, and, of course, a little cheese, which could be anything from an Italian goat cheese to pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Another favorite of mine is grilled Hawaiian prawns with cannellini beans, fresh tomato and sage. The beans are infused with flavor and the shrimp bright and fresh. It's a smart, contemporary take on the classic tonno e fagioli (tuna and beans). Finally, here's somebody who knows how to cook beans.

Bresaola, thinly sliced air-dried beef, is paired to effect with some buffalo mozzarella, oil-slicked roasted peppers and basil. And tender crespelle (crepes) are delicious, filled with sauteed wild mushrooms. Even the carpaccio here is above par. The thinly sliced raw beef, in this case, filet mignon, is showered with arugula and slivers of Parmigiano-Reggiano. All the basics are very well done.

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