I’ve been twice to Emilio’s Sunday buffet and plan to try several more times, if they don’t go broke first.
Emilio Baglioni is practically giving away his country buffet. We’re talking about four or five courses for only $22, including dessert and coffee.
You can’t beat that.
You can’t beat that even in Italy these days. Nor will you find a more representative country buffet in Italy these days. Or one as Italian.
Italy, since Emilio’s departure from his native Abruzzi more than 20 years ago, has gone European, meaning that the modern Italian cuisine is growing in international scope. Emilio, who is dedicated to his culinary heritage in the strict letter of the law, still produces the authentic fare of his childhood, while trying to keep up with ongoing trends. Which, in the restaurant business, can keep you huffing and puffing all the way to the poorhouse if you try too hard, fickle as the public taste is these days.
My feeling is that Emilio is trying too hard to please too many people all of the time. He’s tried every trend that’s whizzed by Los Angeles: inviting visiting Italian chefs to cook in his kitchen, as is traditional among French chefs. He has broken down walls to bring more light into his otherwise darkened establishment when the trend toward light-bright restaurants so dictated. He added a grazing menu when grazing was “in.” And now he will, he has said, add a touch of East-West when his new menu arrives. Italy meets East-West or something like that, just to keep in the flow.
I really don’t think that Emilio need break his neck keeping in the flow to that extent. No matter what changes are made to keep up, I will remember the place just the way it was--with its incongruous fountain smack in the middle of the restaurant, taking up hundreds of dollars of precious profit space, the overstuffed booths and dark lighting. I like the old and new Italian cooking, the roving musicians, the concertina played by Emilio himself. He’s created a distinctive style that simply defies change. Why do I go to Emilio’s? Certainly not to discover East-West cuisine. Certainly not to dine by sunlight at night. And certainly not to graze.
You simply can’t describe Emilio’s restaurant without calling special attention to its unusual decor, which has been described by some restaurant critics as “tacky,” but is actually far more genuine and honest than the hip hybrids popping up lately around town. The maitre d’s at Emilio’s, some critics have said over the years, are “snobbish,” meaning that they play favorites to the exclusion of any poor slob walking through the door for the first time--or second. Emilio’s does boast a steady clientele. But tell me what restaurant--nay, what maitre d'--anywhere is not guilty of same from time to time, given the nature of man, whether the person in charge is handling the traffic at Spago or Fat Burger.
Then there are tee-hees over the “hokey” roving musicians. But I wonder who is doing the tee-heeing? Personally, I am not crazy about having to stop my fork in mid-air to listen to someone pouring out a Puccini aria over my plate of pasta, but the roving musicians at Emilio’s are a tradition you simply tolerate because it ain’t gonna be no other way if Emilio has anything to do with it; and, more important, as musicians go they’re not all that bad.
Back to the buffet.
Incidentally, many of the buffet items are available as specials throughout the week, if you have to miss the Sunday buffet. And, if by any rare chance you don’t want the buffet, you will always have the a la carte menu to look at.
However, the Sunday buffet is spread around the fountain in various stations, starting at the door with a spectacular cold antipasti bar, complete with a huge wheel of creamy Italian caciocavallo that is absolutely glorious, if you like caciocavallo. You also get a sampling of roasted or grilled vegetables, caponata and many other regional specialties.
Then you are urged to try one or two of the excellent pastas offered (and changed weekly) from the pasta station, where a chef presides, cooking up rigatoni pepproni, agnelotti pann e spinaci and the spaghetti alla chitarra (guitar string pasta) for which Abruzzi is famous. Mario Marfia, a chef from Tuscany, has arrived to man the regional specialties, while long-time chef Ramon Calderone takes care of the house specialties.
Then comes the fish course--salmon or whatever is in season--which you can take or skip for the meat course. And what a meat course it is. There is usually a whole suckling pig fragrant with rosemary and herbs to try if you like pork. And I do. I love pork, especially roasted until the meat falls off the bone.
You also have a choice of chicken cacciatore, osso buco made with baby lamb, timbalo , Italian sausage and peppers, roast veal with herbs, or whatever the chef decides to prepare that day as a special. Those who enjoy polenta (cornmeal mush) should call to find out if it is being served that day. I love it with the pork.
You can try for seconds, as some people do, but I would suggest saving room for their fabulous cappuccino or espresso and the piece de resistance-- Mount Vesuvius, the magnificent “volcano dessert,” a mountain of puff pastry, sponge cake and meringue with a dusting of cocoa gliding down the mountain. The giant-size “mountain” slowly diminishes as portions are cut away during the course of the evening.
It’s quite a feat.
Just like Emilio’s.
Emilio Ristorante, 6602 Melrose Ave.; (213) 935-4922. Open daily from 5 p.m. to midnight, reservations suggested. Major credit cards accepted. Valet parking available. Excellent range of Italian wines and full bar. Sunday buffet menu available from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Regular menu also available Sunday. Sunday buffet $22, includes coffee and dessert.