RESTAURANT REVIEW : Toto Caffe: Brisk Service, Lovely Food


As we walk toward the front door of the new Toto Caffe Spaghetteria, we see the chef, Tonino Toto, standing outside talking to some people at a table. We know he’s the chef because we recognize his owlish glasses from the sketch on the menu. As he talks and laughs, Toto absently tosses a bar towel into the air, up and down, catching it, turning it, exactly as if it’s dough for pizza.

Clearly, this man has pizza making in his blood.

Toto Caffe is not the easiest place to spot, so pay attention--this could prove useful: It’s tucked into the corner of a West Los Angeles mini-mall, right next to a Jenny Craig, just east of Sepulveda on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Inside, it looks, well, like a slightly fancy mini-mall restaurant. The floor is black-and-white checkerboard. Tabletops and portions of the walls are deep red. The wobbly, black faux-bentwood chairs could fit well in any frozen yogurt shop. The visible kitchen is strictly no-frills.


Nearby institutions supply many of the customers--academics from UCLA, Latter-day Saints from the nearby temple, shoppers from Century City. Toto Caffe, I’ve found, is also a convenient meeting place between the East and West sides, equidistant, say from Santa Monica and the Hollywoods.

Toto Caffe is one more member of the growing Mora family restaurant empire, which includes Beverly Hills’ Da Pasquale and Atwater’s Osteria Nonni. I recognized personnel from both locations. I also recognized the wonderful bread and pizza crusts.

The bread, served hot from the oven, is blistered on the outside, fragrant and chewy within: clearly made from the Moras’ carefully guarded recipe. One fights the temptation to fill up on it. Hold back, however--there are other pleasures to be had.

The pizza, for example.

Toto’s range is broad, but I think his simpler pizzas are the best. The Checca pizza, with fresh hot tomatoes, garlic, basil and mozzarella, seems assembled directly from a summer garden. The more conventional Parigina, with ham, mushrooms tomato sauce and cheese, gets a kick from hot, spicy olive oil.

Salads and appetizers also have the chef’s basic, sure touch. The arugula, radicchio and endive in the insalata tricolore are utterly fresh and dressed lightly with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and just-ground black pepper. The generous serving of Caprese-- fresh mozzarella and sliced tomatoes--is centered around a mound of aromatic pesto for dipping.

Pastas are listed by topping, which can be put on any pasta you choose. Turn the decision over to the chef, however, and you will invariably get linguine. One night linguine came with Zia Teresa, clam sauce with mussels; another night, it came with rapini , the compellingly bitter Italian broccoli.

Some of the more unusual pasta treatments here include pasta alla Giusi--tomato sauce with rolled beef and a pork rib--and pasta alla ricotta Romana, which is a toss of warm fresh tomatoes and radicchio, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, fresh basil and tiny squares of dried ricotta. The crumbly sheep’s milk cheese adds a depth of flavor rarely encountered in restaurants outside of Italy, even in this Italian food-crazed town.


The menu’s short list of entrees is supplemented by a fresh fish-of-the-day and other specials. On the whole, the fish here is treated simply and respectfully. A hefty slab of fresh whitefish is gently sauteed in just enough olive oil and wine to ignite its sweetness.

Toto Caffe is still a fledgling establishment, and when the chef’s away, it shows. One Monday, when Toto was nowhere in sight, a roasted half chicken was dry from overcooking (though the accompanying roasted potatoes were wonderful). A gorgeous slab of mahi mahi was also sadly overdone.

But even when Toto is on the premises and the food is at its glorious best, there is nothing luxurious or fancy about this mini-mall spaghetteria. This is not the place for a long and lingering meal, not the restaurant I’d choose for any special occasion. You don’t have to dress up. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. The service is brisk and friendly. The food is generally lovely. I know I’ll make ample use of Toto’s Caffe/Pizzeria/Spaghetteria in the months and, I hope, years to come.

* Toto Caffe Spaghetteria, 11047 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 312-6664. Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday. Beer and wine soon. Major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $24 to $56.