Over the two years since I'd last eaten there, I've nursed a fondness for Toto Caffe Spaghetteria in West L.A.; I've sent many friends and have always been meaning to return. So when a woman I know called to mention that Toto had expanded--both dining room and menu--I was delighted for the excuse to return.
The dining room has neatly doubled in size; otherwise, much remains the same: same checkerboard floor, elephant-gray walls, same busy kitchen. The clientele is casually dressed, relaxed and many know Tonino Toto, the cheerful, bespectacled chef.
My friend and I were seated next to a trellis of silk philodendron. A waiter soon approached. "How are you tonight, beautiful ladies?"
My friend and I exchanged a glance--can you believe this guy?--and ordered drinks. Near us, people were cutting gorgeous thick chops off hefty bones, on plates with roasted potatoes, salad. Hungrily, I asked our waiter what it was.
"Veal chop," he said.
I wanted it. "Medium rare."
But first came scamorza, the first good tomatoes of the season marinated in olive oil, basil and garlic, broiled with slices of silky smoked mozzarella for a warm dish so sensuous, we blushed to eat it.
The awaited veal chop bore little resemblance to the dish I'd coveted. Smothered in sun-dried tomatoes, it came with perfectly nice pesto-soaked penne. (If I'd bothered to read the menu, I might have known that this is how the veal chop came.) The chop itself was well-done, mealy, gamy. My companion graciously gave me some of her "Spaghetti Toto," overcooked pasta with leeks, arugula, tomatoes and too many sun-dried tomatoes. When I asked the waiter why my veal chop did not look like my neighbors', he said, "Oh, but that's different." (To his credit, he did offer to replace the chop.)
Later, as we left, he called, "Come back soon, love."
I thought about Toto for a few days--the dreamy scamorza , the ghastly chop--and decided to try again. I returned several times, in fact--to the same, obsequious waiter, the same mixed messages from the kitchen.
Appetizers and salads are almost all quite good: terrific fresh mozzarella and prosciutto; a decent antipasto plate with spicy marinated eggplant, gloriously bitter rapini. Spinach salad with strips of grilled tuna and lemon dressing is juicy, fresh, light.
The pizza crust and pizza bread served at Toto is yeasty, chewy, unapologetically addictive. Both the cheeseless Pizza Ken with shiitakes and basil, and the simple Romana, with anchovies, are as good as ever.
Pasta toppings, a selection of distinctive and often unusual regional Italian specialties, are served on a choice of pasta, which tends to be soft, cooked far past the desired al dente stage. Worth trying, however, is the new penne Norma with eggplant, fresh tomatoes and tiny cubes of sharp, provocatively musky dry ricotta. And "Vecchio- style" meatballs are little flavor grenades. A baked bucatini casserole, however, with bell peppers and ricotta cheese, is acidic, limp, dull. The waiter sees we're not digging in and, again, volunteers to replace the dish. Who likes the ordeal of sending food back? Better to have good food the first time around.
Entrees are also a mixed bag: Tuna steak, a new item, swims in a smart tarragon cream sauce. Rich, moist, fall-apart tender ossobuco is heady, but one bite of the strong saffron risotto is all I want.
I do try another veal chop, this time a special with porcini mushrooms and fettuccine: It's medium rare and fresh-tasting--but the fettuccine's way too salty. I never did find those beautiful chops espied at the next table.
There's plenty here to please--and plenty to disappoint. Maybe, like the woman who called me, you need to be a regular at Toto's to figure out--or command--the best dishes. Toto used to be one of the best mid-priced home-style kitchens in town, so you ignored the glitches. But the competition in Italian restaurants has become fierce in this city; good ingredients and inventive menus are commonplace and everyone, even the old masters, must struggle to keep up.
* Toto Caffe Spaghetteria, 11047 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 312-6664. Lunch, Monday through Friday. Dinner, 7 nights . Beer and wine served. MasterCard, Visa and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only $27-$57.