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Lower Calories, High Quality of La Famiglia Fare

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Times Staff Writer

The last time I was in La Famiglia in Beverly Hills I spotted Dino Martin sitting at a booth digging into his gnocchi. Gnocchi? What’s that we asked at the time. That was almost 15 years ago. Now, of course, we know. We know all about pasta all Checca, pesto and primavera, and all the new Italian dishes that have happily entered our lives.

Back then, the cozy, comfy place was jam packed with gorgeous Westside people and celebrities, the food was glorious and the price high. But who cared? We were happy.

Well, I was back last week after a long absence and, lo, there was Dino Martin sitting at the same booth digging into his gnocchi. So was his agent, Mort Viner, who, says owner Joe Patti, lost 35 pounds eating his low-cal food. The cozy and comfy clubby restaurant is still jam packed with gorgeous guys and gals, the prices are still high and the food has risen to new heights of achievement.

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In fact, I stopped at La Famiglia because I heard Patti had been serving low-cal, low-sodium, low-cholesterol Italian dishes. Bravo Patti. He’s in tune, he knows and he cares. And, more important, he’s smart. He knows that already many restaurants are moving toward the direction of dietary considerations. And the sooner the better.

Modern Cuisine

Patti was one of the first Italian restaurateurs to introduce modern Italian cuisine back in the ‘70s, when Los Angeles was a wasteland of hanging Chianti bottles, fake grapes and heavy tomato sauce. Patti’s sophisticated neighborhood restaurant has survived with flying colors, despite the high mortality rate of neighborhood restaurants in Beverly Hills, perhaps because he’s not only keeping up but anticipating.

His health-conscious cooking came into the picture a few years ago, when his eldest son developed a medical problem requiring careful attention to preservatives and additives, fat, sodium and cholesterol. “I started reading labels. Then I started checking our own food supplies and made changes,” said Patti.

The nice thing is that the menu doesn’t ram “health food” down your throat. You can pick anything from the menu and tell the waiter to keep it on the low-cal/cholesterol/sodium--or whatever--slant. Just ask.

But there is also a group of specialita nostra dishes containing no butter or flour that have been designated as healthful on the menu for those looking for them outright; things like poached eggplant Parmigiana, which was as light as a feather and absolutely the best I’ve eaten anywhere, the thin sheet of melted cheese (low-fat, I trust) notwithstanding. There is also a poached whitefish, pollo al vino bianco (poached chicken in wine) and vitello casalinga (veal made Paillard- style: pounded thin and grilled) served with wonderfully fresh, steamed vegetables also recommended for low-calorie dining. A shrimp scampi, which is generally loaded with butter, is on the list too.

Waiter Will Help

If it’s low-cal/fat/cholesterol pasta you want, the waiter will guide you. On one visit our waiter suggested pasta with fresh tomatoes (all Checca) or primavera. I tried the primavera because of the extra vegetables you get on top and it was splendid. Filling, yet fresh and light.

There is an idyllic steamed vegetable plate that looks like a Matisse painting. If you’re on a weight-loss diet, you can’t go wrong there. A beautiful plate of fresh asparagus was brought to the table with low-cal dressing, which was hard to dissect and I forgot to ask about.

The grilled dishes are also a good bet if you’re on a weight-reduction regimen. They will make you feel pure while purging your body of oils, flours and butters.

Well, halfway through the meal we cheated. I couldn’t take my eyes off the gnocchi on Dino Martin’s plate. His was topped with a thick marinara sauce reminiscent of the kind you get in the East Coast neighborhoods. “His family is from Abruzzi and that’s the way he likes it,” said Patti. “But you can have it with a lighter marinara sauce. Practically no oil. Want to try it?” What’s a little cheating among good friends, so I said, “OK.” And I wasn’t sorry. The gnocchi, unlike the bullets I’ve bitten into in my time, were tiny pillows of fluff. It was definitely one of the lightest gnocchi’s I’ve had.

We tried La Famiglia for lunch earlier and ordered a wonderfully light, low-cal chopped salad with poached chicken. You can have it with seafood or other meats too. Also a good choice is the insalata nostra (house salad), made with hearts of palm, green beans, mushrooms and lettuce in a dressing based on tomato and balsamic vinegar. The poached white fish is another good choice. The menu is flexible and so are the waiters, so ask and you shall receive.

For more casual lunching or dining (with price break), you can go next door to Piccola, Patti’s cafe where most all of the dishes offered in the restaurant can also be ordered.

If you’re dining with a non-dieter, he or she need not fear. There are plenty of ways you can go hog-wild on calories. The special on the menu the night we were there was osso buco. I would have killed to order it, but, of course, refrained. There is also excellent bistecca peperonata (pepper steak), cutlets Parmigiana, chicken alla cacciatori, steak and peppers, a number of fresh pastas (including tortelllini with meat, cannelloni filled with chicken, beef or veal, ravioli filled with chicken and risotta.

You have dry pastas topped with meat sauce, prosciutto and eggs, olive-caper sauce, four cheeses, pepper and sausage, shrimp and clams and others. Fish offerings (salmon with lemon and capers, sole with lemon butter, scampi with tomato sauce and poached swordfish are among them. You can also order a broiled live Maine lobster (at market value) if you are so inclined.

The Price of Dining

Prices are not low, as we already warned. In fact, expect to pay anywhere from $15.95 to $20.95 for pasta alone. The meats range in the mid-$20 and appetizers under $10.

We were ready for dessert. There was plenty of room, having gone light on dinner. The waiter, diplomatically overlooking our digression over gnocchi and keeping in line with our pristine program of low-cal eating, suggested assorted fresh fruit for dessert. But that wasn’t exciting enough for Patti, who doesn’t miss a thing when he’s around. He butted in with a suggestion to try melon with berries. “No calories there,” he said. “But how about creme caramel?

“But that has cream,” I said.

“No, it’s made with low-fat milk,” Patti said.

Well, that was yet another offer I couldn’t refuse.

La Famiglia and Piccola, 453 and 455 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (213) 276-6208 and (213) 278-3395. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Valet parking evenings. Major credit cards accepted; reservations suggested. Full bar. Catering available. No pipes and cigars.


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