Times are hard, especially for fine dining. Rather than stay the course and wait out the downturn, hoping for the best, two Italian restaurateurs, both with once highly regarded restaurants, have taken a tough stance and revised their restaurants from high-end ristoranti to mid-level trattorias.
The results are mixed, with All' Angelo retaining more of its character than Minestraio, the trattoria that replaced La Terza in the same space. In the end, it comes down to commitment and the determination to make the restaurant an authentic experience despite the dwindling price point.
In the case of Minestraio, because co-owner Gino Angelini's first restaurant, the ever-busy Angelini Osteria, is only blocks away, it didn't make sense to duplicate that concept. Instead, the menu is focused on pasta, offering some two dozen different kinds, all handmade. Prices are way lower than La Terza's were (nothing is more than $16) and portions more American-style than Italian, i.e. more main course than primi.
But it's something of a blow to see the former La Terza reduced to going after the Olive Garden crowd.
The kitchen under chef and co-owner Gianluca Sarti turns out a credible tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce. The chef, after all, is from Bologna. Pappardelle with mixed mushrooms is nicely sauced, featuring lots of slippery sautéed mushrooms, not your full-on porcini fest but a few varieties of fairly normal mushrooms.
Lasagne with beef ragu and béchamel is excellent. Like the eggplant parmigiana, it is not overburdened with cheese, so you can taste all the various elements. The rigatoni with eggplant and dry ricotta works well too. These are the kinds of pasta dishes you could find at any neighborhood trattoria in Italy. And the pasta is never overcooked.
But not everything works this well. Minestraio's amatriciana barely resembles the luscious version at Angelini Osteria. Maybe it's the tomato sauce, but it just doesn't have the same vibrancy. And the tortellini in brodo -- true tortellini no bigger around than a pinkie -- is marred by a murky, almost flavorless broth. And if you're tempted to order the old war-horse pasta in pink vodka sauce -- don't. This recipe is better left back in the '80s.
But if you want a big plate of decent pasta at a decent price, Minestraio could be your place. And from the number of larger tables there on recent visits, it seems to be finding a niche for girls' nights out, birthday parties and family dinners. When I headed for the ladies' room, a tiny boy careened by me, shouting out, "There's somebody in the ladies' room: My mom!" You didn't see many kids in the La Terza days, but now you do.
The handful of starters include some delicious little veal meatballs in tomato sauce, a couple of salads and a lovely eggplant parmigiana. But the best one to share is battilarda -- a wooden board with Italian cold cuts. It's not the most generous platter around but perfectly fine, especially for the pistachio-studded mortadella folded like handkerchiefs.
Since the focus is pasta, the main courses number only a handful. Tops on my list: the rustic grilled sausages with roasted potatoes crisped at the edges and the breaded pork chop alla Milanese. The latter isn't paper thin but about a half-inch thick, fried to a golden brown and served with a decent potato purée. There's a crusty and juicy pollo al mattone (chicken cooked under a brick) too. It's normal food at a normal price, but a far cry from La Terza's wonderful cooking when it first opened and Angelini was more of a presence there.
The once-admirable Italian wine list has been stripped: It's not only smaller, it's also filled with mediocre wines when it could just as easily be made up of good-value Italians. That's a big disappointment for anyone who loves wine. Desserts aren't anything to shout about either. They taste like something you'd get on Alitalia flying coach. The only one I can recommend is affogato -- vanilla ice cream drowned in a cup of espresso.
Ah, but dinner's not the only show. Minestraio is open from 11 a.m. all the way to 11 p.m. every day, a boon if you find yourself suddenly hungry at 2 or 3 after window-shopping along 3rd Street. And at lunch, Minestraio offers an unprecedented bargain -- three courses for $12.99. At that price, you almost can't afford not to have lunch.
The service at Minestraio could use some serious tweaking. There's no real presence in the dining room. Service is uncoordinated and can be very slow (especially during a Laker game). More troubling, Minestraio feels like the stepchild of Angelini Osteria, unloved and forgotten. It doesn't have to be that way.
A Melrose stop
Over at All' Angelo, owner Stefano Ongaro took a hard look at the way things were going when business dropped precipitously. And so this native Venetian who honed his fine dining front-of-the-house skills at Valentino, where he was a longtime waiter and maitre d', whipped off the tablecloths of his 2 1/2 -year-old ristorante and turned trattoria. He's got a relatively new chef, Roberto Franzoni, with experience at Cipriani in Venice and New York. And a new menu at decidedly lower prices.
He's always running some kind of wine special -- a glass of Prosecco for $9, a white and red for $5 a glass, or a half-carafe of higher-quality wines for $15. Drink up!
Prices may be lower, but the cooking is still polished and professional. Ongaro's late father-in-law, Ciro "Mario" Marino of Marino Ristorante, farther west on Melrose Avenue, took him into the kitchen and showed him how to make the dough for the grilled pizzas. These are really delicious, small plate-sized pizzette for $8 each, the crust thin and crisp. The Trentina, velvety fontina cheese topped with slices of smoky speck is love at first bite. Other choices include mozzarella with artichoke and shrimp, with pancetta and eggplant, or heirloom tomatoes. And on Tuesday nights, when Ongaro brings in a house DJ, pizzette are just $5 each.
The affettati -- sliced cured meats -- are top-notch here, all freshly cut on the silent antique Berkel meat slicer from Italy. The mix of salumi varies, but usually there's some mortadella, a couple of different salami, coppa, that delicious speck. Prosciutto can be ordered separately paired with Taleggio cheese.
Recently, Ongaro has been introducing some typically Venetian dishes, some from an antique cookbook that his father found for him at auction. That would include calamari in busara, in a spicy tomato sauce streaked with paprika and peas. His father also found him a hand machine to make bigoli, a Venetian pasta very like spaghetti, which he serves in a pulled duck sauce. This is a real treat, the noodles firm and slightly chewy, the sauce rich and robust.
Pastas, now at $15 each, haven't dropped in quality with the price. Try the lamb lasagna or the tagliolini tossed with slivered prosciutto and peas tucked under a Parmesan gratin. The chef also makes a fine rigatoni alla Norma. And for $20, you can get a trio of pasta dishes.
Like Minestraio, Ongaro is restricting main courses to a handful, all $20. Most are fairly plain: a grilled calamari steak with greens, a pork scaloppine or grilled swordfish. The most unusual may be the roasted whole poussin dosed with ginger, almonds, saffron and white wine, another recipe gleaned from that antique Venetian cookbook.
Though the economy isn't with him, Ongaro hasn't given up. He's still fiddling with his menu, striving to give customers something unique despite the stringencies of his new price point. The chef is having to learn new tricks, too, but by keeping the quality at this level, once the economy is back, All' Angelo is poised to pick up where it left off.