It seems a mirage at first, an apparition of a restaurant improbably hidden among manufacturers and repairmen. Yet Eatalian bustles with a very real and unexpectedly upscale energy: Its parking lot is a stable of European luxury, and inside are the power brokers who hold the keys.
Owner Antonio Pellini never intended to transform this former textile factory into a restaurant — the space simply demanded it. Pellini originally envisioned only a production facility for fresh cheeses, gelati and baked goods. But Eatalian is so cavernous — whispers could probably echo for hours here — that a dining room built itself into the plans.
It's a fitting stage for the cafe's culinary theater, where performances are played out behind an all-access panorama of windows that peer into the restaurant's inner workrooms. Diners are inevitably transfixed, a captivated audience in awe of the gleaming mozzarella machine, the still-swirling batch of pistachio gelato and the flour-coated hands of bakers massaging heaps of dough.
The spectacle is grand even for Pellini, who grew up in Ventoso, a village of about 800 in Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. He's been behind his own stoves for 20 years, having opened five restaurants in and around the Italian city of Scandiano. With him now at Eatalian are not just the collected lessons of that experience, but also a pair of childhood friends on whose cooking he can rely.
Every bit of attention is paid to the restaurant's 30 types of pizza. They're astonishingly thin, edges brittle and blackened like parchments battered by time. Eatalian's brick-oven pies are best with varied layers of flavor, like the verdure grigliate, a pizza of grilled eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper, onion and curls of trevigiano, a regional radicchio from Treviso. Meat lovers might try the capricciosa, rosy strips of prosciutto, mushrooms and smooth, almost milky crumbles of sausage.
Eatalian isn't making its own mozzarella just yet — Pellini's direct-from-Italy equipment must be tweaked to satisfy American regulations — but the hardware offers a promise that soon the pizzas will be even better.
Until then, marvel at the enormous size of the Parma ham calzone. It's pulled from the brick oven charred and crackling, a magnificent crescent packed with porcini mushrooms and draped in ribbons of diaphanous prosciutto. Or try the homemade tagliatelle. The porous pasta sops up almost all of Eatalian's ragù, each strand swelling with unmistakable meatiness.
Shake off the routine with one of the restaurant's daily specials. The gnocchi — perfect little pillows of potato — are worth planning a week around, ethereal dumplings that dissolve as fast as cotton candy. They're best in garlicky pesto. Repeat diners will also encounter a plate of homemade butternut squash ravioli as well as the rosette al forno, a blooming rose of pasta baked with mortadella, béchamel and cheese.
Dinner is not yet a reality at Eatalian, but the cafe does do breakfast. Wake up the Italian way with a morning pastry (maybe a wedge of the blueberry crostata) and a shot of caffeine dispensed from a Faema espresso machine, a stainless-steel marvel of midcentury design as iconic as an Alfa Romeo roadster.
After tables share their final slices, Pellini races over to the gelato counter to offer samples of nearly all the two dozen flavors. Sometimes he'll take a taste along with you, delighting in the exquisite creaminess of the hazelnut gelato and the palate-cleansing tartness of the lemon sorbetto. He's right to be proud — every flavor is excellent.
But nothing earns Pellini's praise quite like his gelato sandwich. This isn't some frozen cookie construction — it's superb gelato between an airy, homemade focaccina, a delicately sweet roll studded with golden raisins. Biscotto gelato — like a faint, toasty gingerbread — makes a great filling, but it's impossible to refuse the Nutella gelato, a rich chocolate-hazelnut counterpoint to the bready focaccina.
In Italy, Pellini says, such a sandwich sometimes replaces lunch altogether. And at Eatalian Cafe, it's so good you might be tempted to do the same.
FOR THE RECORD: After publication of this article, Eatalian added dinner service and is now open seven days a week. Its new hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
15500 S. Broadway St., Gardena, (310) 532-8880.
Pizzas, $6 to $9.75; pastas and daily specials, $8 to $10.75; salads and sandwiches, $5.50 to $8.50; Desserts and gelati, $1.50 to $4.
Open Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.