Smother me in spaghetti. Zap me with ziti. : La Dolce Vita

Some men spend their lives questing for proof that God exists, some are locked in an anguished effort to eliminate the scourge of war from the face of the Earth and some spend sleepless nights seeking ways to free humanity from the pain and horror of disease.

I march in search of a far more elusive goal: the Perfect Italian Restaurant.

I'm a pasta addict. I can do without a martini if I have to, however seductively one might beckon, and I can pass a plate of poitrine de veau without so much as a backward glance.

But lure me with linguine and I'll follow you to Hell.

Fedellini, fettuccine, vermicelli, macaroni, rigatoni, manicotti or cannelloni. It doesn't matter. Smother me in spaghetti. Zap me with ziti. I'll come up shouting More! More!

I really like the stuff.

In fact, for 15 years I have lead my wife through the San Fernando Valley in search of a ristorante possessed of the same mystique that caused Brigham Young to jam his staff into a Utah salt bed and say, "This is the place."

Well, I may have found one. Not a salt bed, a restaurant.

Let me say first that I have probably been to every Italian restaurant you can name, from Agostino's to Vitello's. The Cafe Como? I discovered the place. Papa Tony's? I revel in their rigatoni.

Ameci's, Antonio's, Bruno's, Orofino's, Luigi's, Anna's, Monteleone's, Stromboli, Villa Sorrento, Paoli's, Nicola's and even the Dugout Pizzeria & Bar-B-Q.

Many of them are very nice restaurants but they do not, alas, light a fire in my soul.

Gaetano's in Calabasas almost did, though not quite. To paraphrase Brigham Young when he rejected Cleveland as the Chosen Place, close but no cigar.

The other night I announced to my wife that it was time again to continue the search for the Perfect Italian Restaurant.

"You know something," she said. "I'm getting damned tired of pasta."

She never used to say that. In the days before Gloria Steinem and the pioneering feminist tract, "The Principle of Equal Orgasm," she'd say simply You're the boss, dear.

I miss those sweet days, but I have learned to adjust to her new assertiveness with a wily form of passive resistance which, in the end, will restore male dominance.

I whine.

"Aw, c'mon, hon," I say, rolling my head from side to side, "I gotta do a column and I don't have nuthin' to write an' snivel, snivel, beg, whimper . . . . "

Rather than see me degrade myself in public, she will almost always accede to my wishes and shortly thereafter I will be diving into a plate of linguine and clams.

That's another thing.

"Why," she will ask, "do you always order the same thing? Life holds a million challenges, but you are eternally down there with the linguine and clams."

"I don't know why," I say. "I think it's because I have to make decisions all day and by dinner, I'm tired of decisions, so I order linguine and clams. As Pliny the Elder once remarked . . . . "

"Never mind. I'll go the Italian restaurant if you'll promise to order something other than linguine and clams."

I promised, and we ended up at Gennaro's.

Gennaro's is a small restaurant in Woodland Hills, just off Ventura Boulevard.

I liked it almost the moment I stepped in because Gino de Felice, who co-owns the place with brother Santino, argues good-naturedly with his waiters, wanders around talking to everyone in a voice that can be heard in the kitchen and, when a lady leaves, kisses her hand.

"You know why we're good?" Gino said in an accent out of Naples, "because we are the only Italian restaurant in town owned by Italians! The rest are owned by Egyptians!"

Then he added, ignoring the irony, "I'm the real McCoy!"

Whether or not it is true that Egyptians have a corner on the ristorante market doesn't matter.

Gino speaks and gestures as though he is addressing the masses from a balcony overlooking the Piazza di Venezia, and his assertions are not intended to invite debate.

"Only a few of those restaurants stay in business five years," he added, still annoyed at the Egyptians. "The others . . . . "

He jerked a thumb downward to indicate their fate.

Equal measures of Gino and fine food are what make Gennaro's a special place.

I ate what was probably the best Caesar salad ever made and spaghetti puttanesca with garlic and olives and capers and mushrooms that I could have eaten forever, and I don't even know what puttanesca means.

Our waiter made the salad while trying accents out on us, and Gino came by long enough to inform us that television actors Scott Baio and Ricky Schroder ate there. Actors have to eat somewhere, I guess.

"You must be pleased that I like the place," I said to my wife later.

"I'm pleased when you like anything ," she said.

"We'll go there again soon."

"Sure. If you'll tell me just one thing."

"Shoot. I mean, what?"

"What did Pliny the Elder once remark?"

Something about linguine and clams, I think.

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