San Pedro is not a place that gives up its treasures easily. But once you know where to look, there are gems aplenty.
It's an old-fashioned port town, originally built on the labor of fishermen and dockworkers, many of them from the Adriatic coast — Greeks, Italians, Slovenians and Croatians. They settled here in insular enclaves that exist to this day. There's a Croatian American club and one stretch of Cabrillo Avenue has been officially renamed Via Italia. There's a Norwegian Seamen's Church. The local parish is called Mary Star of the Sea and includes individual ministries for Latinos, Sicilians, Croatians, Italians, Italians from Palermo, and Filipinos.
Recent years have not been kind to the town (officially, part of the city of Los Angeles and the site of the Port of Los Angeles). Numerous efforts to revivify the area seem stalled and the downtown area, in particular, looks and feels a bit shopworn. But look a little deeper and the community slowly reveals itself.
J. Trani's Ristorante: Ante's Croatian restaurant is gone, so is Papadakis Taverna for the Greeks. Of all the old-line traditional ethnic restaurants in San Pedro, Trani's is the only one that remains. And its fans appreciate that — on any given day the sunny front bar and the clubby back dining room are likely to contain a who's who of the San Pedro power structure. Celebrating its 90th birthday this year, Trani's is now under the direction of fourth-generation chef Dustin Trani, who also runs Doma in Beverly Hills. The menu mixes old-school Italian and more current dishes such as seared ahi tuna. The grilled octopus over a tart bean salad, and the seafood pasta in a textbook OG red sauce, liberally dotted with tiny sweet Manila clams, argue for the former. Service is particularly strong, old-school and warm. 584 W. 9th Street, San Pedro, (310) 832-1220, jtrani.com.
Pavich's Brick Oven Pizza: Pavich's moved a couple of years ago from a small neighborhood space to a larger home on much-traveled Western Avenue, right at the foot of Rancho Palos Verdes. The menu has been simplified somewhat, but owner Zdenko Pavich still turns out the paper-crust Croatian pizzas and the stuffed sandwiches for which the place first became known. Of the pizzas, the Croatian (topped with peppers, mushrooms, feta and a smoked beef similar to speck that Pavich calls "Croatian prosciutto") and the quattro gusti (kind of a Croatian spin on quattro stagioni, with boiled ham, mushrooms and artichokes) are the most popular. Or you could simply choose the San Pedro, which is half of each. 29701 S. Western Ave, Suite 103, Rancho Palos Verdes, (310) 832-1200.
Mishi's Strudel Bakery & Cafe: Tucked away in San Pedro's still-struggling downtown area, Mishi's looks like an old-fashioned ladies' tea room, all done up with lace and chintz and with a soundtrack of Chopin piano pieces playing softly in the background. But the Hungarian strudels, made in-house by Mishi and Anikó Schueller are superb, flaky and crisp with fillings that are not too sweet — the apple-walnut is superb. Mishi's also serves savory strudels and palascintas — Hungarian crepes — and a few other savory dishes such as gulyas — beef goulash. 309 W. 7th St., San Pedro, (310) 832-6474, mishisstrudel.com.
The Corner Store: In a dream Los Angeles, every neighborhood would be like San Pedro's Palisades, kind of Mayberry by the sea, and each would have its own Corner Store. There's nothing fancy about it, it's just a quirky, cool little place that takes care of the locals. The interior is filled with the oddest assortment of merchandise — old-fashioned kids' toys, assorted memorabilia from the store's 65-year existence, a dozen types of root beer and works by local artists and crafters. The food is mainly the usual sandwich suspects, burgers, clubs, tuna fish done well. It's ostensibly to-go (and a great spot to pick up lunch for a nearby beach), but seemingly at any time of day you'll find locals gathered at the tables out front, eating, drinking coffee or just enjoying the quiet neighborhood. 1118 W. 37th Street, San Pedro, (310) 832-2424.
Slavko's Harbor Poultry: Slavko's giant chicken has stood sentry over this stretch of worn-down Pacific Avenue downtown for years. And that's what you come to Slavko's for — pressure-fried (broasted) chicken. The skin is crisp and well-browned, the meat is generally moist. Season it with some of the house-made seasoned salt and you're there. But maybe even better than the chicken are the potato "nuggets." Cooked the same way, the chunks of potato are perfect combinations of crunchy outside and creamy interior. And you certainly shouldn't miss the garlicky mayonnaise dipping sauce. 1224 S. Pacific Ave., San Pedro, (310) 832-8171.
A1 Italian Deli & Imported Groceries: Is there a better way to spend an hour than prowling the aisles of an interesting grocery? A mix of Croatian and Italian products, A1 is a treasure trove for adventurous cooks. Ultra-dried cod (they say baccala, but maybe more accurately stockfish?), assorted fresh sausages, fermented whole cabbage leaves (the package says "kiseli kupus" and the guy at the counter says it's for making cabbage rolls stuffed with spiced lamb and baked with sauerkraut and tomato sauce), cevapcici (here, a mix of beef and lamb, spiced for grilling like kebabs). It's enough to make a cook's head spin. They also make all kinds of hot and cold subs. And right next door is the connected wine store — not for buying wine, but for buying winemaking equipment. Need an old-fashioned screw-press for your grapes? How about a barrel or two? 348 W. 8th Street, San Pedro, (310) 833-4045, a1groceriesanddeli.com.
Picnic spots: What San Pedro may lack in elevated dining, it more than makes up for in casual picnicking. There may be no area in Southern California that's better stocked with quiet spots to lay out a blanket and a spread of food. Start with Cabrillo Beach, one of the few spots remaining where there are seaside fire pits fitted for grilling. Then move out around the bend — White's Point, Point Fermin, Korean Friendship Bell, Abalone Cove, Terranea, Point Vicente, plus a dozen spots in between. Pick up sandwiches or fried chicken, a bottle of wine or a coke, and during a simple everyday lunch hour, you can have a priceless dining experience. Point Vicente Interpretive Center, 31501 Palos Verdes Drive West, Rancho Palos Verdes, (310) 377-5370.