Boxes Packed With Plenty of Pasta for Picnic in the Park

My friend is depressed because he can't afford to buy a house, so I decide to take him on a picnic lunch. Who can keep his mind on pasta putanesca and real estate at the same time?

I call Pasta Etcetera--they make an extremely festive picnic--and order a three-course lunch. My friend wants to come along to Sunset Plaza to pick up the goods. I make him stay in the car.

Out I trundle with two shopping bags filled to the gills, the boxes swaddled in as much tissue paper and gorgeous ribbon as you'd find on bon voyage baskets for the old Queen Mary. "Surprise!"

"Do you know what tortoise-shell eyeglasses cost at that store?" my friend, the curmudgeon, says with his finger pointed toward a shop down the block. "$695!"

"Do you know what a three-course picnic lunch costs?" I ask. "$19.95."

We manage to find a nice park without passing too many Fred Sands realty signs and, thank God, the first course is great. We eat roasted Japanese eggplant with hazelnuts and basil that tastes woodsy and slightly, wonderfully burnt.

Each main course consists of a vegetable dish, a poultry dish and a pasta of your choice. According to my rather shaky calculations, about 686 different combinations may exist. (For an additional three bucks you can have poached salmon or giant prawns.) All I can tell you in terms of mathematics is that the delicious quotient is high.

Spicy Chinese chicken, marinated in a black-bean chili paste and rubbed with cilantro and ginger, is moist and exquisite. Pollo agrodolce-- breast of chicken, roasted red peppers, capers and calamata olives--is vibrant and sweet. And the fagiolini , green beans and mushrooms sauteed with walnuts and sherry, is terrific.

Pasta putanesca comes as a rotelli instead of the listed fettuccine but no complaints here: volumes of garlic, sun-dried and Roma tomatoes create eroticism a l'italienne. The curmudgeon concedes it's choice--then insists I eat another bite of his dour linguine and shrimp. The garlic oil is awful, the baby shrimp could be papier mache, we pass it on to a visiting Rotweiler.

The homespun bread pudding with its light caramel sauce and the easy-going creamy lemon tarte are two good ways to end this feast.

(Another day, I go to Pasta Etcetera and sample numerous dishes sold a la carte. I am always looking for a great calamari salad and have found one here: lemony, tender and $12.95 per pound. At $29.95 per pound, the rosiest, moistest piece of poached salmon around is actually worth the price.

Broccoli and jicima salad is inconsequential. "Power pasta" made without oil and studded with capers is like a sentence with only the punctuation mark. I disliked the garlic chicken--the chicken rubbed up against sun-dried tomatoes for too long and the tasteless skinny French beans cut like blades of mowed grass. But these are exceptions.)

Back at the picnic, I find the house-hungry man, a curmudgeon 45 minutes before, leaning back contentedly. "I bet this place does a lot of parties," he says.

I figure, he's well-fed. I can be honest, right?

"You know what they told me when I picked up the picnics?" I say. "They're all the rage in house-closing gifts."

Pasta Etcetera, 8650 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (213) 854-0094. Open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. American Express and Visa. Parking in lot behind. Order advised one day in advance.

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