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From Positano, with a double shot of love

Enzo & Angela, named for the married chefs who own it, offers casual Italian cooking without pretense.

April 19, 2006|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

IT seemed kind of crazy: an Italian restaurant opening in West L.A., within pizza-flinging distance of Brentwood's olive oil-saturated Italian restaurant row.

But there it was, a shiny new place on the second floor of a strip mall on Wilshire Boulevard at Barrington Avenue. I couldn't resist giving it a try. After all, what kind of kooks would try to compete in the Italian idiom in this neighborhood?

Enzo & Angela would. That would be Enzo Battarra and his wife Angela Battarra. Angela is not only a chef, but also the daughter of actress Angela Lansbury. She met her husband, Enzo, in Positano, Italy, and the two have spent the past 22 years cooking together, most recently at the erstwhile Ristorante Positano in West L.A.

They've suffused the graceful, high-ceilinged room, which is all blond wood and seascapes and a huge picture window (with a great view of Mr. Tuxedo across Wilshire) with an attractive lightness and sense of hospitality. There's no attitude here -- quite the opposite. Unlike many of the spots in the neighborhood that make a great fuss over overpriced, overwrought food, Enzo & Angela is casual and breezy, with warm, accommodating service. And if you order right, it's a terrific bargain.

The fun starts when you sit down and a dish of chopped tomatoes with good olive oil, fresh oregano and garlic appears on the table. It's hard not to eat all of it, scooping it up with the decent house-made bread. And it's not even tomato season yet.

Keep this dish in mind when you order: It's the kind of cooking the place does best. Although there are plenty of highfalutin specials involving things like lobster or filet mignon or Cognac, the simplest dishes here are the way to go: the house-made pastas and gnocchi, antipasti cold and hot, soups and salads, and simply grilled fish.

Although with most of the starters priced between $8 and $16, the dinner menu doesn't look like a bargain at first glance, it's deceptive: They're all gigantic, easily big enough for two, and some large enough to serve three.

Antipasto di mare is the showstopper. Not the expected cold seafood antipasto, this is a gorgeous hot plate of clams, octopus, shrimp, mussels and an impressive-looking split langoustine, all sauteed with white wine, parsley and a little garlic; a couple of long croutons sit on the edge of the plate ready to sop up the delicious juices. It's fabulous, and at $15 a real deal, perfect for sharing or even as a main course for one.

Burrata with peperoni and arugula seems to add up to more than the sum of its simple parts; the red and yellow peppers have terrific deep flavor. You don't often find escarole in salads around town; here it makes a splash in the Positano salad, along with radicchio, endives, marinated mushrooms and good prosciutto and Parmigiano.

With the pastas, again, the simplest are best -- the chefs have the confidence to let the right touch with good products do all the work. The ravioli are made in-house; stuffed with ricotta and spinach and sauced gently with a lovely fresh tomato sauce, it's a dish to come back to again and again.

One night a special ravioli filled with porcini, with a lightly creamy sauce, was earthy and delicious. Tagliatelle is the other house-made pasta; you can get it with Bolognese or as tagliatelle Angela in a mascarpone sauce with prosciutto. It's luscious and not as over-the-top rich as it sounds.

Risottos are reliable and deftly prepared -- one with porcini and tomato sounds unlikely, but it delivers. And gnocchi, light and fluffy, show well in a fresh tomato sauce with mozzarella and basil. Less successful is the gnocchi Gorgonzola -- the blue cheese overwhelms.

Skip the plethora of chicken breast dishes (almost half of the carne section of the menu), and pass up the veal scaloppine Marsala (floury one night, and cooked too slowly). But if Enzo (he's the fish guy) has spigola on special, jump on it. He sautes the small, long Mediterranean bass (also known as branzino, or in French as loup de mer) simply and perfectly, with a bit of shallot and parsley and a nice light touch of white vinegar.

After filleting the fish, the chef reconstructs it on the plate so that it looks like a whole fish. It has a marvelous flavor, punctuated by good olive oil and a delicate texture.

Beware the fish dish

BUT beware the branzino on the menu. Only order it if the chef himself tells you it's spigola. One night I order it, and it's clearly not branzino. "What is this?" I ask the waiter. "Branzino," he says. "From Italy." Though I'm clearly dubious, he insists. But it's dense and almost chewy. A chat after dinner with the chef reveals that it's wild sea bass from New Jersey -- close but no cigar. I guess it probably couldn't be the real thing, priced at $22 (the spigola special is $30).

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