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Just Like Mama Made It

January 20, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

As I listened to a friend recount the story of his first trip to Italy at the age of 20, I found myself thinking, I've never met anyone who didn't fall in love with Italy. For this particular fellow, real Italian food was the revelation. He ate everything in sight and once he discovered spaghetti alla carbonara, that was it. He was so smitten he had to have it once a day for the rest of the time he was there.

People still come back from Italy ecstatic about meals they've had in Florence or Naples or Venice, but the truth is, you don't have to go to the mother country to find authentic Italian cooking anymore. At least not in Los Angeles. And I doubt even in Italy that you could easily find a spaghetti alla carbonara as satisfying on every level as Gino Angelinis at the new Angelini Osteria in Los Angeles.

Everything about this classic pasta dish is extraordinary: the way each strand of spaghetti is bathed in the sauce of pancetta (unsmoked Italian bacon), pancetta drippings, brassy gold egg yolk and good Parmigiano-Reggiano. The pasta itself is Latini brand, extruded from antique bronze dies, the better to grab the sauce. The taste is a marvelous melding of cheese, egg, sweet cured pork and hard wheat pasta. Even the way it sits on the plate is beautiful, an artful swirl of strands standing taller than it is wide.

Actually, the osteria part of the restaurant's name may be something of a misnomer, because the cooking is so much better than the usual down-home osteria. The quality of the ingredients sets Angelini Osteria apart as much as the skilled cooking. Angelini is a highly accomplished chef who came to L.A. in the mid-'90s when the late Mauro Vincenti persuaded him to take the job as chef at Rex. (He later moved to Vincenti when Vincenti's widow Maureen closed Rex and opened another Italian restaurant on the Westside.) Now he's cooking the kinds of dishes Italians revel in when they eat at home. As one Italian friend put it, "Gino is like my mother. I know I can always get something good to eat."

The place has the closely packed tables and high energy ambience of a working-class osteria. A closer look reveals subtle, intelligent details: walls painted the color of fresh cream, the swirled grain of the honey-colored wainscoting, the simple sturdiness of the dark wood chairs, the majolica jars packed with flowers. A ledge for lone diners has been fitted into the bar, and three or four more seats look onto the wood-burning pizza oven. The storefront is so small that there's no place to wait, though you could do the Paris thing and sit outside in your coat and muffler. The biggest drawback is the high noise level.

Angelini's initial menu was a bit muddled, as if the chef couldn't quite give up the idea of risotto with white truffles or composed salads with orange sauce. After all, the received wisdom of many Italian chefs here seems to be to stick to the small repertory of dishes Americans know and like. But now, four months later, people are beginning to understand and appreciate Angelini's food. You can feel the exhilaration of the chef in the menu and in his cooking.

I'm completely in love with his comforting zuppa di borlotti e malfattini composed of plump brown borlotti beans and homemade pasta. Sometimes he'll make minestra di riso e borlotti, which is basically the same thing, with short-grained rice standing in for the pasta. Both need just a swirl of green-gold olive oil and a grinding of black peppercorns.

I can never eat here without at least sharing a plate of pasta. If you see bombolotti all' amatriciana on the menu, don't hesitate. Bombolotti are ridged tube pasta, about as long as they are wide. Cooked al dente to an Italian standard, they're tossed in a deeply flavored tomato sauce with guanciale, the cured pork cheek that's essential to a true amatriciana, and freshly grated pecorino romano. Angelini nails it. I also like the tagliolini with mussels and clams. His tagliolini are almost as fine as angel hair, lightly cloaked in olive oil and the shellfish juices, with the garlic discreetly in the background. Both these pastas have the ideal balance of pasta to sauce. Taste either of these, and you're tasting Italy.

There is nothing pretentious about Angelini Osteria. Much of it has to do with manager Gino Rindone's warm presence. On a busy night, he seems to be everywhere at once--ushering a party in the door, explaining the specials, rushing out to carve something at the table. When the branzino comes out in a battered aluminum baking pan, buried under a heap of coarse salt that keeps the striped bass incredibly moist, he carefully breaks the salt crust, peels away the skin and filets it onto your plate. The finishing touch is a tiny bowl of olive oil and mixed herbs--tarragon, thyme, dill, chervil and a squeeze of lemon.

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