"I've always thought of Evan as a very thoughtful person, a deep thinker, kind of a mother hen," says Mary Sue Milliken, who with Susan Feniger opened City Cafe (which became Border Grill) on Melrose a few years before Angeli; they also were hosts of "Good Food" before Kleiman. Kleiman often wears jeans and T-shirts, clogs or running shoes. Her arty eyeglasses are surrounded by wavy hair that can be a little unruly. She drives a no-nonsense black pickup truck. But it's her voice -- and that laugh -- that people know.
Throughout, she broadcasts a joyful spirit and a scavenging mind. Her laugh spills out of her with a life of its own. It's obvious she loves the job.
She tapes segments at Santa Monica College, in KCRW's basement studios, where she's brought in a banana cream pie she made one morning. Soon she'll be talking about it with the author, Rose Levy Beranbaum. They go over how a bit of egg white that attaches to a yolk might change the consistency of pastry cream, about cornstarch versus flour for thickening pies, about butter or lard in crusts.
Kleiman grew up an only child in Silver Lake. Her Russian-born father and Philadelphia-born mother had come to L.A. from Philadelphia after World War II. Her father died when she was a girl. Her mother was a secretary "who should have gone to college" and who taught her daughter to take care of herself, and then trusted her to do it. Kleiman went off to Europe for eight months with a friend at 16.
She became interested in food as a girl, making home-baked holiday gifts, cooking dinner, getting catering jobs as a teenager. She and her mother always took on crafts projects; they both knit.
A love of cooking
Kleiman has a bachelor's degree in Italian film and literature and an MBA in arts management from UCLA -- an education she thought might lead to a film producer's career. But she worked at a bakery and for a caterer in college, and later at Italian restaurants, rising to executive chef at Verdi. She caught the bug for her own place.
"The act of going in and making something and serving it and getting an instant review and cleaning up. It was very pure, like a Buddhist practice," Kleiman says.
Three more restaurants followed the first, including Trattoria Angeli, which was the Mozza of 1987. That meant life as an executive. She was young and making a name for herself, but it wasn't always fun. She hated trolling the dining rooms and talking to strangers.
"I love being in the kitchen. I love cooking," she said one day, sitting in the Mid-City duplex she shares with her 89-year-old mother, Edith; Paco, a rescue dog she believes is a poodle-terrier mix; and four cats. "I don't like being a manager."
Embroiled in business problems in an earlier economic downturn, she walked away from all but her Melrose Avenue restaurant. It was an expensive and painful loss.
"It took a long time to let go of the desire for a dynasty," Kleiman says. "The thing I was always drawn to was not fancy restaurants but to trattorias. So for better or worse, that's what this is," she says of Angeli Caffe.
For worse? No husband, she says. And, "I hate managing."
For better? "The good part is how it feels when you come here. People like it. It's like being in a family."
In fact, her pizza cook has been there 24 years, the head chef nearly as long.
And Kleiman says she is starting to see adult customers who first came to Angeli as toddlers. "That's really sobering," she says, pausing to consider. "And pretty cool."