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RESTAURANT REVIEW : At Far Niente, Pasta Is Fine, Service Inspired

When I ask my friend Bob, who works in Glendale, if he knows of the Glen Deli, he says, “You bet! I eat lunch there every day! It’s not really a deli, you know. They just changed the name to . . . I can’t remember what. . . . But it’s an Italian place, with bad art on the wall, great pasta and a terrific waitress named Diana who’s losing her mind and will tell you all about it.” Here, he gives a thoughtful, rather wistful smile.

Directory assistance still gives out a telephone number for the Glen Deli, but Bob’s right; the restaurant on North Brand Boulevard does indeed have another name--Far Niente, which means “without a care.” And, indeed, the art is bad. But the bright, clumsy abstractions on the wall haven’t offset business much: On this Saturday night, Far Niente is jampacked. An attractive, straightforward waitress brings us Pellegrino water and helps us decide what to order. “No, you can’t eat an appetizer, pasta AND entree,” she says. “It’s too much food. Better split a pasta. . . . Get the ravioli. . . . I think the rigatoni’s boring. . . .”

“Is your name Diana?” I ask.

“How did you know?”

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“You wait on a friend of mine at lunch. I didn’t think you worked dinner, too.”

“Hey, I work two shifts a day. I have to; I’ve got my kid in private schools. I figured it out, and do you know that school lunches alone cost me a thousand bucks a year?”

In short, Diana proceeds to do just about everything a waitress ought not to do: She tells her life story, brags and complains about her employers, calls us “sweetheart.” And we’re enchanted; such talk is entertaining, considering that she’s also running our meal with a ferocious eye to detail, inexorably making our dining experience the best one possible.

Not only does she guide us through the menu, she makes certain that our bread basket stays full; there’s no wait for oil or fresh ground pepper for our salads, cheese for our pastas, a refill on the Pellegrino, clean cutlery. This waitress may think she’s working two shifts a day to give her child a private school education, but we’re convinced that she’s been sent by the Italian Food Spirit to make us happy.

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We do, on her suggestion, choose the calamari saute over the calamari salad, and find it just fine, although with its pureed tomato sauce with green peas, it seems more a pasta sauce than a free-standing dish. Diana also endorses the clam soup, but advises that we follow it with one of the lighter, tomato-sauced pastas: “Believe me, you’ll get enough cream in the soup.”

Each bowlful of the dreamy, rich blend of cream, pesto and clams is made to order and ladled companionably from a copper saucepan at the table. While this soup is just the kind of hearty nourishment that we crave on cool autumn nights, we get enough calories, period, with the rich course and barely manage a dent in our angel hair pasta.

We also like the Carpaccio topped with shredded radicchio and flakes of good Parmesan and the roasted peppers with fresh mozzarella; both are served with an excellent Umbrian olive oil. The dressing on the Caesar salad, however, is a disappointing but not uncommon emulsified mustard/egg paste. But the Insalata Far Niente is a simple and satisfying plate of tomatoes, blanched green beans, plump shrimp and choice imported black olives.

Many of the pasta dishes are dominated by the house tomato sauce, an orange puree with a slightly canned tang--we like it the way we like tomato soup; it’s a familiar, even comforting sauce, not particularly heavy, but not particularly inspiring either.

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The nice, thick, al dente spinach- and ricotta-filled ravioli swims in it, as does the angel hair pasta with added basil. And the rigatoni puttanesca has yet another version of the same sauce showily decorated with olives, anchovies and capers. The clam linguine with white sauce may only have two fresh clams, but it’s light and flavorful. And one night, my dining companion pronounces the tortelloni, which is filled with a spiced veal and topped with a cream sauce, the best he’s ever had.

I can’t decide between the risotto with porcinis or with mixed seafood, but Diana can and brings me the former. It’s a good, chewy, wet risotto , the way I prefer risotto , and the wild mushrooms have a bosky and evocative pungency: One knows by tasting them that they come from loamy forest floors.

Entrees we won’t write much home about. They’re all served with the eternal standbys--broccoli and carrots--which, although cooked and buttered perfectly, are like boring relatives that one is never overjoyed to see. The scampi comes on straw potatoes, which causes us to forget the rather ordinary shrimp and fixate on those adorable, delicious, persistently crispy spuds drizzled with garlic-lemon butter: We want a haystack, please. The best thing about the battuta profumata is the big sprig of crunchy cooked rosemary that sits on the thin, rather old-tasting steak. My whitefish pesce del giorno has a respectable light wine sauce, but I wish I’d ordered any of the other pastas instead.

On the subject of dessert, Diana so calmly directs us to the chocolate cake, we’re not expecting just how light, intensely chocolately and superb a food we’re suddenly eating. The tirami su is 90% soupy custard stuff and 10% ladyfingers soaked in espresso; it’s kind of a lazy version of the classic dessert, constructed as if its maker lost interest after the first layer of cookies, but we love it anyway.

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And the espresso and cappuccino at Far Niente, like the olive oil and the service, is simply some of the best to be found in the San Fernando Valley.

Far Niente, 204 1/2 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 242-3835. Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; dinner from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Beer and wine. Visa and MasterCard. Dinner for two, food only, $15 to $40.


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