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LA PASTERIA: A FRENCH-NORTHERN ITALIAN HOT SPOT

“It can’t last,” said my friend the cynic. “The prices will go up, the food will get bad, you won’t be able to get a reservation. I’ve seen it happen a million times.”

It was hard to argue against experience, but for now, at least, La Pasteria on Melrose Avenue seems a real find. It’s a modest, almost makeshift little restaurant, the main decorative features of which are white plastic patio chairs with blue cushions; walls painted French blue, the paint as glossy as the frosting on a cheap birthday cake and a pretty platter of bright-red tomatoes on the kitchen counter.

After only weeks of business, it’s already attracted a jazzy crowd. The owner/host is French and one night there were enough French people in the patio out back to make you think you were at Cannes--smartly dressed women in dramatic black hats and pounds of silver jewelry, the men handsome as Belmondo. And wasn’t that Godunov and Bisset a few tables down?

I knew the minute I’d walked in that the food was going to be good. How? Simple. The place smelled great. In the open kitchen midway between the front room and patio stood a young man in white at the range, who with his big pink face looked more like a sweating high school tuba player than a chef. But what wonderful aromas of garlic and butter and wine were coming from the frying pans he was stirring and shaking!

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Those elements had happily found their way into the food. First, a gratis chop of tomatoes and croutons, a la Pane Caldo/Silvio (the owner had been a maitre d’ at Silvio). Then, a shared order of clams mariniere--steamed clams (not a bit of sand in them) accompanied by a very nice white wine/butter/shallot liquid for dipping.

But it was the entrees that had us sneaking bites off each other’s plates. Even my cynical friend loved his chicken with roasted garlic, which came sitting on a most delicious bed of bow-tie pasta whose sauce took its flavor from the drippings in the chicken pan. Pritikin would not have approved, but we did. And my pasta--fusilli with broccoli, mushrooms, garlic and red peppers--was great, the broccoli bright green and crunchy, the sauce with just enough oil and garlic to keep things interesting.

Another night I tried penne with lemon, a wonderful concoction. The tube-shaped pasta, perfectly al dente and coated with lemon juice, oil and grated Parmesan, made a nice, clean, light dish. The menu also offers pasta with pesto, with tomato sauce and salt pork, with tomato sauce and fresh basil, with artichokes and cream, with blue crab meat, with asparagus, with Gorgonzola, cream and walnuts, with roasted bell peppers, olives, green onions and sage, at prices ranging from $5.75 to $7.95. I’d like to try them all. I trust that kid in the kitchen.

There are also daily specials, such as the garlic chicken or white salmon with rosemary and lemon, as well as appetizers--bresaola, prosciutto, fried mozzarella and something called a mozzarella brochette--mozzarella melted between slices of deep-fried bread, resting half on marinara sauce, half on pesto. But I’ll save my appetite for the pastas and entrees, thank you--and for dessert.

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They serve some of the best tarte tartin I’ve ever had--sinfully buttery, caramelized, like a gigantic, not too sweet, big baked candied apple. A wedge of dense chocolate cake also seemed an amazingly rich treat in such modest surroundings.

They don’t as yet have a beer and wine license, but they serve nice mineral waters, reasonably priced. The Evian, for instance, is $3 for a bottle big enough for two--or even four.

The waiters are handsome, sweet and efficient. My only complaint is with the host, a barrel-chested Frenchman in dark glasses who played his part with the manic, nervous intensity Mel Brooks might bring to the role of restaurant maitre d’ out to court the Hollywood crowd. He fawned over my friend, whom he knows to be a movie producer, and treated me as if I were invisible. He ought to spread his unctuousness around.

La Pasteria, 7212 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 934-7259. Monday-Saturday, lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner 6:30 to 11:30 p.m. Visa, MasterCard, American Express. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$40.

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