Room With a Viewpoint (His) : The Reluctant Gourmet filled up on spaghetti and beer at I Cugini; the Real Gourmet had a tougher time
“I don’t go to restaurants with names I can’t pronounce,” said the Reluctant Gourmet when I suggested dinner at I Cugini (ee-coo-GEE-nee). “Especially when they are on the Westside.”
“You can have pizza,” I pleaded.
He looked skeptical. “It’ll be one of those baby pizzas with skinny crusts and fancy toppings--the kind you have to eat three or four of before you get full,” he groused. “And they probably won’t even have beer to go with it--just a long list of fancy wines with unpronounceable names.”
“I’m sure they have beer,” I soothed. “I’ve heard that the food is very good. They bake their own bread. You’ll like it.”
“I doubt it,” he said--and proceeded to complain all the way to the restaurant.
The RG groaned when we walked in. “I told you,” he said. He waved his arms at the room. “Just look at it!”
I did--it looked pretty swell to me. It was a wonderful fantasy of a room, as if somebody had gone looking for all of the most attractive elements of Italian restaurants and brought them together in the same place. There were lots of warm wood tables with old-fashioned lights dangling over them, walls the color of lemons sitting in the sun. There was marble, a great curve of a bar, and murals painted on the back wall. There was even a little shop carved out of the front of the room with elegant glass cases displaying row after row of the most enticing looking food. “What’s wrong with it?” I asked.
“It’s a Westside nightmare,” he replied, indicating all the chic tanned bodies whose moussed heads were yearning toward the bar. “We’ll probably have to wait an hour.”
But he was wrong. Hundreds of people (all of whom looked like models) did seem to be waiting--but so was our table. “We only reserve a third of the tables,” said the hostess as she led us to one under the murals. “The rest we save for walk-ins. Right now, there’s a 45-minute wait, but we make sure that people who reserve get seated on time.”
“What?” shouted the RG. It was a word we were to find ourselves repeating during much of the evening; this is a very loud room. The hostess repeated herself.
“I’ll have a beer,” said the RG. “And a pizza.” He then began to grumble about the fact that he had to choose from a list of 15 beers and 16 pizzas (including one made with salt cod and goat cheese, the very idea of which he found revolting). He ultimately selected Moretti (“OK,” he admitted, “it’s sort of a yuppie beer--but it’s very good.”) and a pizza called “ esplosiva ,” which contained, among other things, hot salami, olives and chile oil. The beer was good; so was the pizza.
Was the RG happy? Not exactly. “I’m still hungry,” he announced. “I told you it would be one of those baby pizzas. What else can I eat?”
“Let’s have an antipasto plate,” I suggested. It was not the most inspired idea of the evening. What we got was a large plate bearing a bit of eggplant, some prosciutto , a few slices of sopressata , marinated peppers, a little cheese, and a rubbery calamari salad that tasted mostly of herbs, lemon and bay leaves. “It looks pretty,” said the RG, “but nothing has much flavor. I want something to eat. “
For some reason he opted to have the spiedino di gamberi-- billed as “large shrimp, mesquite grilled with lemon-basil, garlic and virgin oil.” He frowned down at his plate. “It’s like . . . shrimp jerky,” he decided, pulling a desiccated little piece of shrimp out of the shell. “And these vegetables aren’t much better.” He held up a potato that had been cooked into hollow dryness. I didn’t much want the shrimp, but for the sake of peace I offered to trade him for my spaghetti Bolognese (a special of the day). Actually, I wasn’t thrilled with that dish either; Bolognese sauce should be cooked over low heat for a long time until it achieves a wonderfully complex intensity. This was just another tomatoey sauce--which is exactly what the RG wanted. “It’s not like this wimpy Westside stuff that you like, " said the RG, “it’s great. It tastes like real American spaghetti and meat sauce.” He proceeded to devour the dish.
I, unfortunately, decided to try dessert. Called “ regina de saba " it was a huge, vulgar slab of chocolate cake--a sad caricature of the French reine de saba , one of the most delicately voluptuous concoctions in the world of cakes. But I got no sympathy from the RG. “Why would you order something with such a dumb name?” he wanted to know.
By now he didn’t seem to mind that he was shouting, and he was ready to admit that the room was beautiful. He had eaten his pizza; he had drunk his beer. He had filled up on spaghetti and meat sauce. He had not spent a lot of money. But most importantly, he had watched one of his heroes walk out the door. “Any restaurant that Mel Brooks comes to is OK with me,” he said, ordering a second cup of coffee.
We went back a few times over the next few months; the RG was hoping to find Mel Brooks again (he never did), and I was hoping to discover something good on the menu. What I found is that the carpaccio is quite good--and at $6.95 among the least expensive in town. The quazzetto di vongole-- a big bowl of manila clams is a delicious dish, and you can have a great time mopping the tomato broth in which the clams are steamed up with a piece of warm focaccia. My favorite of the pasta dishes is the very simple pasta alla rughetta --with its clear notes of arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and olive oil.
Among the main courses, the grilled chicken breast is decent; an oven-baked slab of tuna is good when it’s not cooked too much. The plate of sausages and polenta would be better if the grilled polenta weren’t quite so dry.
I haven’t had all of the desserts, but the ones I’ve had need work. The fresh fig and lemon tart is a waste of fresh figs. But then, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. This is the Westside, and people who come here look as if they spend a fair amount of time worrying about how they look in their bathing suits. Once, I actually went into the bathroom and found a little stack of square red papers sitting on the marble sinks. This is what it said: “Wanted, 100 people. You can earn $$ while you lose up to 29 lbs. Call now.”
I Cugini 1501 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. (213) 451-4595. Open 11:30 a.m.- 10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $28-$70. Recommended dishes: steamed manila clams, $7.95; carpaccio, $6.95; pizza $7.25-$9.75; pasta alla rughetta, $9.75; grilled double chicken breast, $9.75.