Southern Italian cuisine somehow doesn't get much respect in L.A., where it's represented, mostly, by places where quantity triumphs over quality and southern Italy becomes a cartoon of buxom Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren types, red-and-white checked tablecloths, a sappy soundtrack and pasta served in giant bowls in gallons of red sauce.
When an Italian friend clued me in on a new Italian restaurant in the Palm Springs area, he got my attention with the adjectives "traditional" and "high-end." He himself is from the south of Italy. If he liked the place, I thought, it was worth checking out.
Cut to Rancho Mirage and Villa Abbate on a weekend night. As soon as I walk in and get a load of the hokey bas-relief of Bacchus, the swelling curves of the ornate faience vases and the formal décor, my first impulse is to walk right back out again.
But once we sit down in a roomy booth and watch as the tuxedoed waiters roll a wheel of grana cheese past us to another table, I'm hooked. The courtly, old-fashioned service is everything it should be. And the cooking from chef Nino Spinella is truly fine.
We start with an antipasto tower, a silver three-tiered affair laden with high-quality salami, prosciutto and other cured meats, olives, sweet roasted peppers and more, a bargain at $15 per person.
Baked clams with an oregano-flecked crust are delicious. So are the arancini, risotto balls with a beef and pea filling. You can get insalata di Cesare prepared tableside, but that's not really Italian.
Better to go for the pasta prepared at the table. It's a three-star production involving silver and copper burners and chafing dishes. You get your choice of marinara, puttanesca, arrabbiata or aglio e olio sauces. Our puttanesca was perfectly prepared, the pasta al dente, napped in just the right amount of sauce.
"Before I had this job," our waiter tells us, "I didn't cook. Now my wife loves me."
Another interesting pasta is bucatini with sauteed cauliflower, saffron, anchovies, raisins and pine nuts.
Scampi and shrimp are excellent. You can get seared tuna with sweet and sour onions and mint pesto, sautéed fennel sausage with broccoli raab or a splendid veal chop. The special that night was braciole, veal with a savory stuffing, the best I've ever encountered in this country.
The chef gives southern Italian cooking its due respect. It turns out, he's an Italian American kid from New Jersey, who's worked mainly on the East Coast and has a real feeling for this cuisine.
Bravo! Ol' Blue Eyes would have loved this place.
Villa Abbate Ristorante Italiano
Where: 69-820 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage
When: Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Full bar. Lot parking.
Cost: Salads, $7 to $18; antipasti, $6 to $15; pasta, $16 to $25; main courses, $24 to $38; desserts, $8.
Info: (760) 321-6835