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An old hand -- a new life?

RESTAURANTS / THE REVIEW

Antonio Tommasi, who helped introduce L.A. to northern Italian cuisine, is back in the house at Ca' Brea.

September 12, 2007|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

CA' BREA is back, after being closed nearly a year for renovations. And, for the first time in a long while, chef-owner Antonio Tommasi, who founded the place in 1991 with Jean-Louis de Mori, is playing a much more active role in what's coming out of the kitchen.

The Italian-born chef started his career in Los Angeles in 1979 at Orsini and went on to work at a number of Italian restaurants here, including the now-closed Chianti Cucina. In 1988 he and De Mori opened Locanda Veneta in West Hollywood; three years later they opened Ca' Brea, followed by Il Moro in West Los Angeles and Ca' del Sole in North Hollywood (and a couple of others).

In the last years, though, between spending time in Italy and juggling all those restaurants, Tommasi didn't seem to have been paying that much attention to the languishing Ca' Brea. After 16 years, the once-lovely Venetian-inspired restaurant was looking tired. It took the fire last year that destroyed much of the restaurant's interior to galvanize the chef into updating this seminal L.A. restaurant, which reopened two months ago.

Come evening, the old crowd is back, reminiscing, table hopping. You hear the sound of laughter, of chairs sliding as someone gets up to embrace a friend. The servers are invariably friendly and helpful, so much so, I begin to feel embarrassed that we're not polishing off every one of our dishes.

In the bright of day, the ladies who lunch hand off their vintage Mercedes and BMWs to the polite valet. Inside, the newly refurbished bar has acquired a couple of affable barflies, who are happily sipping chilled Pinot Grigio as they wait for a friend. Three beefy guys huddle at a table on the far side of the bar, delving into plates of pasta and veal chops smothered in mushroom sauce as the waiter pours the last of their Sangiovese.

The hostesses are genuinely warm and accommodating, making you feel as if you've just arrived for the party. Someone takes your coat. Someone else offers cocktails or a glass of Prosecco. The place looks familiar, yet different, and it really evokes Venice; it might be one of those dark wine bars near the Rialto Bridge. In the gloom, there's an impression of an accumulation of dark wood furniture and fittings. A floor-to-ceiling cabinet with glassed-in shelves divides the bar area from the main dining room. Stuffed with bottles of bitters, grappa, olive oil, aceto balsamico, packages of dried pasta and rice for risotto, jars of olives and jams, the piece adds character to the room and conveys the sense that Ca' Brea has been around forever. In L.A. terms, it has.

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An oasis on La Brea

In the main dining room, a cozy, intimate space, tables are lined up along the walls. You can either sit in the cloistered dark of that room or walk past the open kitchen and take a table in the enclosed (and air-conditioned) patio where the plastered umber and gold walls exude the cool damp of a Venetian palazzo. The view through the French doors is an enclosed garden with potted plants and trees. But from inside, the sound of the traffic has faded away and we could be anywhere at all.

Our server is Italian, and she's very precise in taking our order, wanting to make sure that she understands exactly which salad or pasta we mean. Some sound very similar. For all the buzz I've heard about Tommasi updating the menu, it doesn't look much different from what I remember, with more generic Italian dishes than truly regional ones. He's basically tweaked things here and there, without substantially changing the formula that's been so successful over the years.

It pays to remember that when the generation of Italian chefs that includes Tommasi along with Agostino Sciandri, Giorgio Baldi and more arrived on the scene, Los Angeles was mired in old-school red sauce Italian. When these chefs started to cook northern Italian cuisine, it was a revelation. Suddenly, Italian was chic and people became conversant in extra virgin olive oil, ribollita, chicken al mattone, bigoletti (Venetian spaghetti) and risotto. Restaurants sold boatloads of Super Tuscan wines, and northern Italian cooking (which was mostly Tuscan, if we're going to be honest about it) became as familiar to upwardly mobile Angelenos as the cut of an Armani suit. It conveyed sophistication and class.

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Oh, pioneers

By the time I arrived in L.A. in the mid-'90s, some of these once-lauded restaurants were resting on their bay leaves. Locanda Veneta had great looks and an A-list crowd, but the food was a big, fat C. Hard to fathom that this had once been one of L.A.'s top restaurants. Or that the overcooked and over-sauced pasta at Ca' Brea came from another highly rated Italian. Let's face it, not many restaurants manage to stay at the top of their game for more than a few years.

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