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RESTAURANTS : THE REVIEW

Every night is a big night

Things are hot and heavy at the new Terroni -- both the raucous scene and the southern Italian food.

January 30, 2008|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

It's the hot new Italian in town. Restaurant, that is. And in L.A., that usually means a formal attitude and northern Italian cuisine. But Terroni is a raucous, high-spirited place, and the kitchen is turning out southern Italian food heavy on the garlic, anchovies and hot peppers.

Oh, no, here comes some bewildered soul who's wandered in expecting Valentino and finds, instead, something that looks like an Italian broccante, or junk shop, with mismatched lamps, folk pottery from Puglia, funky midcentury wooden chairs and a couple of long country tables mixed in with shiny wood booths. Elegantissimo this is not. And the decibel level is earsplitting. Too late to turn around, though. He's already given the valet his Porsche.

Terroni is the L.A. outpost of a short string of places (namely three) owned by Cosimo Mammoliti -- in Toronto. What's he doing way down here on Beverly Boulevard, then? It seems Shereen Arazm, the club owner who lit up the Hollywood night with Parc and Shag, among others, worked for Mammoliti early in her career. For her first non-nightclub venture, she had a lively, casual place like Terroni in mind -- and in the end, went into business with Mammoliti and brought in a manager-partner from up north too.

It may not be the stuff of foodies' dreams, but Terroni is attracting hordes of twenty- and thirtysomethings for its moderately priced fare and high-energy ambience. Nothing sleepy about this place: It rocks. They take no reservations, so unless you're very early or very lucky, there's usually a wait for a table. All the better to sip a Negroni or a Campari and soda at the bar, which is often three or four deep, and check out the scene.

The room has a madcap, lighthearted decor, a little bit tongue-in-cheek, a little bit punk. Pretentious is not part of the vocabulary here, and I'd seriously advise anyone planning on dining here not to break out the Armani power suit or Dolce & Gabbana leopard print. The dress code is strictly Hollywood scruffy -- wool caps pulled low, hand-knit scarves, and vintage frocks mixed up with knee-high boots and backpacks. The crowd consists of girlfriends out for a night on the town, couples chewing over a movie they've just seen at the Grove, hungry musicians and groupies, teenagers scarfing down pizza and pasta -- in other words, the place has a broad appeal.

Those pizzas coming out of the wide-mouthed pizza oven have an enticing, crackling thin crust, and they're bargain-priced compared with fancier versions around town. They come in more than 30 varieties, which can seem overwhelming. Canadians, like Americans, must be enamored of choices. Among my favorites is the Polentona, a smear of light tomato sauce topped with a little mozzarella and Fontina cheese and blanketed in thin slices of speck, a smoked Italian ham, and pine nuts. Bufalina is a Margherita made with mozzarella di bufala, which gives it a slight edge over pizzas topped with the normal cow's-milk cheese. There's another pie topped with hot Calabrese salame, roasted red peppers and the basic mozzarella and tomato that's good too. It's called Natalina. But cheese is sometimes so meager you can easily end up with a piece of pie without any.

And what's with the cut-it-yourself policy? Even with a sharp knife, you still almost need two people to do it -- one to hold the pizza on the plate, one to cut. You may want to think about tucking a pizza cutter in your bag before setting off for Terroni. I know someone who did, and carried it off with aplomb.

Generous plate

Another great way to start a meal at Terroni is by ordering up the salumi plate, called "tagliere del salumiere." For $14, this has to be the most generous in town, and plenty for four to share. From the number of huge olivewood boards covered with prosciutto di Parma, jamon serrano, sopressata and coppa flying by our table, this has to be one of the most popular items on the menu. It helps that fat salame, hams and sausages are in full view in a glass case to one side of the open kitchen.

Cooks work double time under sparkly chandeliers and big red letters that spell out "CUCINA" with chef Fabio Moro, the import from Bologna via Toronto, directing. Of course, the menu offers plenty of items under the category "apristomaco" -- that is, stomach openers. These include an excellent grilled calamari nestled next to some salad greens and a mixed plate of burrata cheese, Serrano ham and fried artichokes that's ideal for one or two. Salads are rough and ready, sometimes underdressed, sometimes overdressed, with the ever popular Caprese appearing in two versions, one made with the more expensive bufala mozzarella, but neither with primo tomatoes. Steer clear of the fried zucchini blossom special: They're not only bland, but also greasy, limp and dull. And they haven't improved as the restaurant heads into its third month.

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