"For years," Cafe Como's press materials declare, "the residents of the North San Fernando Valley have tried to convince anyone who would listen that: 1. They were more than just a bedroom community; 2. Their palates were just as sophisticated as their brethren across the hill--and they didn't mean Simi Valley; 3. Permits would be granted to restaurants other than just fast food and family restaurants; 4. Those howling sounds were not Santa Ana winds, but the fervent cries of gourmands begging for an elegant Northern Italian dinner house with good credentials that could be a 'Dining Experience.' "
And now, five months in business, here it is: Cafe Como, smack dab in the midst of a shopping center in Northridge, surrounded by a supermarket, a sea of cars, and a hamburger/ice cream emporium called Fuddruckers, worth mentioning because of its riveting window display: half a dozen slaughtered and skinned steers hung whole from hooks.
Inside Cafe Como, the scene fortunately softens to one of bentwood chairs, pink tablecloths, mirrored walls, ficus trees strung with lights. Up above are banks of paned windows with planted window boxes that give the place the feel of an outdoor piazza.
Dark-haired, dark-eyed Italian waiters wear tuxedos. At my table, the L.A. contingent, I wear silk, Charlotte wears pearls, Murray wears a tie. Around us, the citizens of the North Valley are dressed more in tune with the shopping center surroundings, in shirt-sleeves and slacks, blouses and skirts. The place is doing steady, if not land-office business.
The menu lists dishes we on the south side of the hills take for granted-- carpaccio , bresaola, pasta this and veal and chicken that, calamari , cioppino . Chef Giuseppe Pupillo, ex of Rosa's in Baldwin Park and Mauro's in Glendale, puts the dishes through their paces with a fairly sure hand that only occasionally gets shaky.
Carpaccio is just fine; bresaola , the dried beef, is good, calamari fritti could be crisper. Insalata caprese (mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, basil leaves and Italian style ham) is artistically presented, but needs a sexier dressing. Vongole alla napoletana is sexy--fresh, tender clams in a light yet garlicky tomato sauce.
This chef does great things with garlic. Conchiglie alla brese (pasta shells with sauteed broccoli and butter and garlic sauce) is ambrosia to a garlic freak, and a special dinner on a subsequent night--jumbo striped-shrimp baked with butter, garlic and breadcrumbs, also has wonderful flavor, although the shrimp is overcooked and slightly dry--a sad near-miss. Pollo piccata (with lemon, butter, capers and mushrooms) suffers the same problem--good sauce, dry chicken, but a great price, $10.
The only disaster is the linguini alla vongole . It is bland and watery, the clams are tough, and Charlotte had requested extra garlic. When she reminds the waiter of his promise, he immediately takes the dish away and brings a replacement-- piccata al limone , which, unfortunately, seems to have extra lemon while the veal is not as white and tender as it should be. (Another night, though, the scaloppine al marsala is very good on all counts.)
Murray gets the best meal of all, another of the chef's specials--a veal chop stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella, baked in a brandy/mushroom sauce. Charlotte, who knows her way around a kitchen, and the world, tastes the sauce and says, "Nothing to be ashamed of"; from her this is a high compliment.
Dinners come with either a green salad in a delicate oil-and-vinegar dressing or minestrone soup. The soup proves that even without garlic the chef can do great things. It's subtle and fine, with a stock that smacks of integrity.
The L.A. contingent concludes that it will stick with restaurants closer to home, but the howling gourmands of the North Valley can save themselves a trip to town. If they give Cafe Como their support and appreciation, and are demanding, they have a chef capable of satisfying them.
And there are many more items on the menu to lust after--breaded lamb chops with a mustard and red wine sauce, rigatoni with a sauce of walnuts, cream and tomatoes, to name a few, and a floor-to-ceiling wine rack full of Italian, French and California wine to keep them happy. This is a restaurant that could well grow with the territory.
Cafe Como; 19524 Nordhoff Ave., Northridge. (818) 349-9978. Bear and wine only. Reservations essential. All major credit cards. Open for lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30-2:30; for dinner nightly, 5-10. Dinner for two, food only: $40-$70.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: "All our food is wonderful!" said the nice young waiter with such enthusiasm that although I didn't entirely agree with him, I certainly wanted to. The new Cafe La Brea, 7119 Melrose Ave., (213) 937-6241, is an entirely likable little place with a laid-back air. The modestly decorated room looks a bit like a New York coffee house of the '60s, but the menu is strictly California in the '80s.
It's an odd mixture of simple French food, (onion soup, omelettes), the ubiquitous pasta dishes and lots of salads--all given a vague Asian twist. You find this not only in the delicate arrangement of the food, but also in the use of ingredients: Fettucini gets a Thai touch with shrimp and squid and sweet basil, a "Tokyo Salad" made of shrimp, tofu and seaweed arrives dressed in miso, and among the appetizers is grilled tofu. Entrees, which range from about $5 to $9, come with soup or salad, and are served with a generous hand. This is not a Great Dining Experience, but you do get a lot of carefully served decent food at a very reasonable price.