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Reality Cooking : Take-Out: The Ultimate Reality

Despite an onslaught of competition from supermarket delis and swarms of take-out chains, independent carry-out shops--which led the movement for quick, quality food that could be picked up on the way home from work--still thrive.

Some of Southern California’s best take-out comes from the following shops. Each in its own way has a special style that keeps customers loyal. Proprietors tend to be opinionated, down-to-earth andgenerous.

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A huge make-believe tree “grows” right out of the roof at Wesley’s Place, a green market and carry-out food shop. Deli cases are surrounded by mountains of vegatables and ripe fruit. Here seasonal produce is the main ingredient in a constantly changing selection of dishes. The store’s slogan is: “You’d cook like this if you had the time!” Wesley Bartera’s food-from-the-garden theme may seem a timely marketing ploy in light of the USDA’s advice to eat ample fruits and vegetables. But the idea actually evolved from the small 1,000-square-foot produce shop Bartera bought in 1975.

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She upgraded the produce quality and selection, which attracted local budding gourmet cooks. Eventually Bartera expanded the business by selling fresh-cut fruit trays, fresh salsas, guacamole and zucchini bread. But, she says, “people kept asking me to do a little of this and that for their parties and the whole thing just snowballed.”

Last October, Bartera moved into a new La Canada store more than six times larger than her original shop. Wesley’s Produce became Wesley’s Place.

Seasonal produce is transformed into American-style dishes with just enough quirky international touches to keep things interesting. Bartera’s 25 or 30 potato salad recipes, for example, include blue cheese potato salad and German-style potato salad. Coleslaw is also a standby and there’s always one coleslaw with a novel twist: California red cabbage slaw, for instance, has strips of red and yellow pepper, zucchini and zingy lime-cumin vinaigrette.

Soups, especially the cold ones, are some of Wesley’s more delicious concoctions. When peas are in season, the kitchen makes a chilled soup from fresh, slightly sweet peas, flavored with handfuls of fresh mint and finished with cream. Popular gazpachos include gazpacho verde and white gazpacho with garlic, cucumber and ground almonds.

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In late summer, Wesley’s bakes fruit and berry cobblers and makes big batches of homemade, low-sugar jam.

Wesley’s entree menu lists three different options each week (you can fax your choices in at (818) 952-9324). There’s always a dish called “chef’s whim chicken breast.” It might be marinated Yucatan-style and grilled or perhaps braised in a Dijon sauce. Other entrees might be pork loin with green peppercorn sauce, roasted game hen stuffed with wild rice and apricots, Mexican-style turkey lamb shank and vegetarian lasagna.

Bread is baked in-house, but Wesley also carries half a dozen varieties of Italian bread from Pani Pani bakery. Padus, with a rich yeasty flavor is the round loaf made from semolina flour,. filoni and fint (yes, fint), skate board-sized Italian white and whole-wheat loaves, are sliced for sandwiches. Demi-baguettes are made with Kalamata olives or walnuts, wheat and raisins or sun-dried tomatoes. While the counter people pack your order, you can relax with a cappuccino under the faux tree.

Wesley’s Place, 711- H Foothill Blvd., La Canada, (818) 790-4622. Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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Umberto Savone bounds around the long, thin stainless-steel kitchen of his Umberto Food, looking for ingredients to put on a pizza. “I call this pizza a la Nonna--that’s grandmother’s pizza,” he says, dangling a slice of grilled zucchini over dough on a wooden paddle.

“When I was a kid all my grandmothers would make this for us because it didn’t cost much. They used up whatever they had around.” Savone arranges pesto-laced roasted potato slicesand tiny chunks of sausage braised in tomato sauce, on the dough, then adds assorted grilled vegetables, goat cheese and low-fat mozzarella. “I’m still working on the crust recipe,” he admits. “I called my mother to get her advice.” Even so, the pizza is marvelous and homey.

“I learned to cook like this by helping my grandmothers,” Umberto SAYS. “I would hang around and do odd chores like bringing in wood for the stove. That way I would get a lot of good things to eat.”

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Cherubic-looking Savone is most well-known as a beauty-salon magnate. He is Umberto of Beverly Hills. His food venture, he says, is for his beauty customers. “Now they can take home some wonderful food after being busy all day.”

Supervising his 126 beauticians and two salons, Umberto can’t devote much time to the stove. Never mind. He leaves most of the cooking TO chef Pasquale Giordano and his assistant Roger Berrera. Green beans with caramelized onions, and whole cloves of roasted garlic may have been inspired by umberto’s nona , but giordano uses fine French-style green beans.Although grilled baby summer squashes may be part of a home-cook’s repertoire, Umberto’s grandmother probably didn’t use thumb-sized zucchini and yellow pattypans about the size of a nickel.

Thin scallops of skinless chicken breast, are quickly sauteed and seasoned with balsamic vinegar. one salad combines hearts of palm and fresh roasted baby artichokes with mushrooms and colorful peppers.

“We’re trying to keep the food light,” Giordano says and holds up a squid and vegetable salad. But there is something for everyone here: Roast chickens with rosemary, or chicken breasts lightly breaded and cooked milanese? style. Cheese-stuffed roasted eggplant slices are topped with full-bodied marinara, and cooked-to-order pastas include penne with grilled chicken and sun dried tomatoes in a light cream sauce.

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At Umberto Food, pizzas can also be ordered anyway you like them, even the way Umberto’s Nonna would have made them.

Umberto Food, 424 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 274- 5653. Open Tuesday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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Amalfi used to be an antique store on Santa Monica’s Main Street until Janine and Rodolfo Giglioni turned it into their Italian gourmet shop about 11 months ago. deli cases and shelves of groceries all lead to the open kitchen where the two work as they talk to customers.

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With the baby in the next room, the couple work stoves and counters all day. Janine makes fresh mozzarella. Rodolfo prepares his own lean chicken and turkey sausage daily. Week-ends, there’s seafood sausage, too.

Rodolfo grew up apprenticing in Italian restaurant kitchens; Janine studied at the restaurant-hotel school of culinary arts in Perugia. Husband and wife met in Italy and cooked together there for 12 years at Milan’s famous Gualtiero Marquesi and Marina Due on Elba. This place gets better as you get to know the food...and the chefs. the giglioni’s willcook whatever you’re in the mood to eat.

If you need prompting though, there’s plenty in the display cases to encourage you. Arancini, golden fried ovals of rice and cheese, are delicious with a side dish of brocoletti di rape sauteed in garlic. The garlicky bitter greens are also wonderful tossed with cooked pasta. Vegetarian cannelloni, are tender crepes filled with vegetables and ricotta. There’s a different soup each day, too. “We only use vegetable broth; meat is too heavy for soup, " Rodolfo says of the white bean or lentil and vegetable soups they usually serve.

Amalfi’s sandwiches are wonderfully exotic: Gorgonzola cheese with creamed walnuts and prosciutto cotto come on crusty Italian rolls or homemade focaccia. Prosciutto gets paired with radicchio and creamy mascarpone.Piadina Romagnola, served only in the wintertime, is a homemade pocket-style bread filled with Amalfi’s freshly made mozzarella, prosciutto, grilled red peppers and spinach.

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Amalfi also turns out the unusual Neapolitan Easter dessert called pastiera: a sophisticated-slightly sweet, ricotta-based cheese cake studded with chewy cooked wheat berries.

Amalfi, 2400 - D Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 392-7466. Daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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Homey cooking of a very different sort comes from The Main Course, a place with food that seems to be straight from Fanny Farmer’s cook book. Every day, the shop roasts turkeys that go into sandwiches or become turkey dinners served with mashed potatoes, steamed fresh vegetables, homemade cranberry sauce and gravy. The carcasses are used for soup and stock for the shop’s gravy and sauces. Sometimes they will roast a stand of beef rib, or loins of pork or offer such nostalgia-inducing dishes as Irish lamb stew and corned beef and cabbage.

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These savory dishes are the doing of Reggie Arjungi, now the owner. The two Canadian sisters who started The Main Course years ago served the same Mom’s-home-cooking style. But Arjungi, sensitive to his customers preferences, has brought the food into the ‘90s lightning up many dishes that might otherwise be too rich.

Mashed potatoes at The Main Course have no milk or butter (or anything else). The more expensive Kingston Idaho potatoes he uses have enough flavor on their own, Arjungi believes. Gravy and most of the sauces are thoroughly tasty though made without butter or drippings. We don’t claim this is diet food, says Arjungi, “we’re just keeping up with the times.”

I recently found out that The Main Course’s frozen dinners have a great following with mothers of teenagers--presumably because they need to have wholesome meals on hand at a moments notice. Most are $4.95 for a single serving that amply serves two (unless served to male teenagers). The selection includes turkey chili, Hungarian chicken goulash and an especially good chicken tarragon. The large chunks of fork-tender, skinless braised chicken in a fat-free, tarragon-infused sauce tastes as flavorful as many richer versions would.

The Main Course, 10509 W. Pico Blvd. West Los Angeles, (310) 475-7564. Open Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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In the style of a French traiteur, a term that loosely translates to caterer or gourmet shop owner, Pascal Olhats, chef and owner of Orange County’s well-loved Pascal country-French restaurant, opened Pascal Epicerie about seven months ago. His admirers had approached him to open other restaurants. But Olhats likes a business he can oversee personally most of the time. So he elected to open next door to his restaurant. From the shop’s grand new kitchen, Olhats can cater larger parties and with the shop’s specialites gastronomiques, his patrons may cater their own events with dinner or hors d’oeuvres.

Most foods here have the solid robust flavors of Provence. This is the French soul food of garlic infused escargots, creamy potatoes au gratin, roasted chickens and tomato tarts. Deeply flavored confit of duck leg comes packed in a seasoned, rendered duck fat that is marvelous for sauteing onions and potatoes to accompany the duck meat.

Of the daily changing entrees you may find bouillabaisse, or cassoulet. But every day there will be Pascal’s signature dish sea bass with a “crust” of thyme and crumbs resting on a tomato coulis.

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For hors d’ oeuvre, Pascal offers his black olive tepenade; an eggplant caviar and a marmelade of sweet caramelized onion to serve on croutons. There’s a small but hard-to-find selection of French cheeses including several sheep’s milk and goat varieties like brin d’amour, a goat’s milk cheese ripened on a bed of herbs.

Charcuterie is also made on the premises which is extremely unusual in these days of commercial pate manufacturers. Pascal puts out about half a dozen items including his own rillettes and a duck and pistachio-nut terrine. A case holds picture-perfect tarts, cookies and house-made truffles.

Many patrons seem to be friends and long-time customers of Pascal and some avail themselves of the shop’s wine cellar where they rent one of the lockers. Says Olhats, “I select my favorite wines from small vintners so they are often a much better value than wines from better-known wineries.”

Pascal Epicerie and Wine, 1000 Bristol St . , (in Plaza Newport at Jamboree) Newport Beach, (714) 261-6868.

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