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An old hand -- a new life?

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

That's also why I was so intrigued to hear that Tommasi was taking Ca' Brea in hand. He's still not done with the improvements. A fireplace and antique doors are planned for the enclosed patio. Next month he'll start serving small plates and mini-sandwiches there along with espresso and aperitifs between lunch and dinner. Meanwhile, Tommasi is definitely in house. On two out of three recent visits, the long-haired chef was patrolling the dining room, chatting up longtime customers and occasionally giving instructions to the line cooks at this coming-out party.

We're ready to love Ca' Brea, especially because the prices seem so reasonable compared with the newer places. Most antipasti are well below the $15 and $16 I see at some places, and pastas too are a relative bargain.

A first meal, though, is disappointing. Insalata tiepida di frutti di mare -- tepid seafood salad -- doesn't have much flavor; it's just some shrimp, squid, mussels and flaps of mushroom thrown together in a bowl. And when the bigoletti arrives, I realize it's tossed with the same pallid-tasting seafood. Nothing about it is vivid or tastes of the sea. The salad is as generic as they come and not saved by the quality of the ingredients (which is not the highest), or the practically nonexistent garlic lemon dressing.

Some things are quite decent, though. I like the verdure, an antipasti plate made up of marinated roasted red and yellow peppers, quartered artichoke, thin slices of eggplant and wedges of grilled kabocha squash. Order that with a plate of salumi -- prosciutto, salami, coppa, mortadella -- and you're set. Bruschetta topped with chopped tomato and basil is tasty, while the melanzane -- grilled eggplant layered with tomato sauce, Grana Padana cheese and basil -- brings a touch of the south to the menu.

Salads are pleasant enough but almost always seriously overdressed. And we have to pick through our mushroom salad one night looking for a few paltry slices of the white mushrooms promised in the salad's name. They're inexpensive, so why not be more generous? A better choice might be the salad of frisée and arugula with nuggets of Gorgonzola and tiny fried matchstick potatoes. But what's with the balls of goat cheese wrapped in pancetta and fried and then set on some plain, watery-tasting spinach I'd swear is frozen, not fresh? It looks completely unappetizing and the goat cheese inside is gluey. Somehow I don't think this is the latest trend from Italy.

Meanwhile, the spirit of the place is so genial, I can understand why it has its fans. But if you're looking for something more interesting or soulful in terms of cooking, this is not the place.

Instead of the traditional sardines en saor, in a sweet-sour marinade with caramelized onions and sultanas, Ca' Brea's kitchen makes it with anchovies. They're house-cured in vinegar and plated with some caramelized onions and raisins on top. It's pretty good, actually, but typical of this kitchen's assembly-line cooking aesthetic. Plating looks like something from an auto grill on the Italian freeway.

Most of the pasta dishes fall flat. Though the pasta itself is supple -- maybe a little thick and clumsily formed -- it's cooked nicely al dente. It's with the sauces that the kitchen gets into trouble. Flat triangular pumpkin ravioli, for example, are filled with a straight pumpkin purée. Tossed in a little sage butter, this dish would be maybe not brilliant, but respectable. But instead of that simple sauce, which plays up the taste of the stuffing, these are submerged in a heavy butter and mascarpone sauce, resulting in a cloyingly rich dish. A special cappellacci stuffed with artichokes and vegetables is delicious but drowned under too much puréed vegetable sauce. Too much tomato sauce weighs down the rigatoni with eggplant and tiny "pearl" mozzarella, turning what is potentially quite an appealing pasta dish into a sloppy caricature.


An ethereal surprise

But where are they hiding the Italian grandmother who made the potato gnocchi? The dumplings seem like they come from an entirely different kitchen. Sauced with a tomato-tinged meat ragù, they have a lovely light texture.

Come the main courses, the kitchen goes back to being bored and boring, though the cooks try to muster some conviction with the occasional trendy flourish. Duck breast gets an overbearing sauce of Barolo and Morello cherries. Grilled lamb chops don't have much seductively lamby flavor, and that veal chop slathered in mushroom sauce (probably the same mushroom sauce as on the agnolotti) could easily make an appearance at the kind of eating establishments the Sopranos favor.

A special of sole steamed with vegetables in parchment paper is woefully overcooked. Nobody seems to be paying attention. Osso buco, one of northern Italy's great classic dishes, arrives in a beautiful, subtly balanced sauce, but the meat itself hasn't been braised to tenderness. It's as if the kitchen is following a score but not quite getting it.

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