Italian soul food, taken to heart

Times Staff Writer

AT first, my visiting Italian friends are thrilled to dive into the L.A. dining scene, eager to eat sushi, sample Lebanese mezze and some soulful barbecue -- anything exotic not available to them at home. Basically, Italians, especially those from the countryside, eat only Italian food, and, at that, only the food of their region. But after a few days of eating all over the map, enough is enough. They've got to have something Italian, preferably some pasta or pizza. And pronto.

That's the moment to take them to Alto Palato and watch the look on their faces when the waiter serves them a pizza Margherita. Thin-crusted and slightly smoky from the oven, it's the real thing, as spare and elegant as an Armani suit. The sauce is fresh and loose with none of the telltale bitterness of tomato paste, the mozzarella is fresh and the sole decoration is a few jaunty leaves of sweet basil. The minute the pie arrives, they snatch it up from the plate, fold it over on itself and devour it in eager bites.

This most basic and delicious of pizza works only when the texture and flavor of the dough is right and each ingredient is in perfect balance. You can't make a Margherita with commercial mozzarella or an indifferent sauce. The quality has to be there in the simplest elements or it doesn't taste like anything at all. That's a principle Alto Palato's founder, Mauro Vincenti, instinctively understood. Vincenti, who died in 1996, was an extraordinary character, an entrepreneur in cinecitta style, who brought in (or when he couldn't, smuggled) authentic products before anybody else had them. He introduced chefs across the country to the difference between any old Parmesan and the best Parmigiano-Reggiano, or commercial balsamic vinegar and real aceto balsamico, to cite just two examples.

Though he was best known for the elegant Rex Il Ristorante in downtown Los Angeles, the flamboyant Roman restaurateur loved a rustic dish of pasta maybe even more than the artful nuova cucina he proposed at Rex. Alto Palato, which he opened in 1994 with owner Danilo Terribili, offered Roman-style pizza, lusty pastas like cacio e pepe, a Roman dish of spaghetti tossed with pecorino and lots of black pepper, and other time-honored trattoria dishes. It was slow food before the movement ever took hold here.

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Everything just so

Soon after the restaurant opened, I remember sitting outside on a summer night and watching this bossy person in a cashmere cardigan bursting its buttons make the waiter serve him a scoop of gelato over and over again until the ice cream slid, just so, off the metal spoon. Vincenti wanted the gelato to look a certain way, and he wouldn't give up until he got it. Meanwhile, his Italian entourage gobbled down all the practice scoops of straciatella (chocolate chip) and nocciola (hazelnut) and finished with cups of espresso and a smoke.

Nearly a decade later, I still head to Alto Palato when I feel the need for some Italian soul food. While Margherita is my favorite, the pizza covered with thin slices of potato, caramelized onion and house-made guanciale (cured pork cheek) is a close second.

Raw artichoke salad is a staple on Italian menus all over town, but Alto Palato's stands out not only for the quality of the Parmesan, but also for the juicy squirt of lemon and good olive oil in the dressing. You can also find famous carciofi alla Giudia, deep-fried artichokes flattened to look like flowers, a specialty of Rome's Jewish quarter. Another delicious appetizer pairs freshly made burrata cheese with supple prosciutto di Parma. The best part of the mussels and clams steamed in white wine is sopping up their mingled, garlicky juices with thick rafts of grilled bread.

Hard to spot from the street, Alto Palato's facade doesn't give away a thing. Peer in the floor-to-ceiling windows, and all you can see is the sparsely populated bar with a metal mobile hanging from the soaring ceiling. The large dramatic dining room, off a doorway behind the bar, used to seem like a drafty New York loft and needed large-scale artwork to give the stark white walls a touch of color. Now, a new paint job has transformed the room, cinching in the walls with vibrant orange, red, saffron and green. The feeling is warmer, and even the hodgepodge of art looks better.

Chefs have come and gone and Alto Palato has evolved from trattoria to ristorante and now, under chef Fredy Escobar, seems headed back the other way. Escobar, who worked under the successive chefs, stepped up to the head position a couple of years ago. And while he's not Italian, he has a real feeling for Italian cuisine, especially pastas. He's added a wonderful bombolotti (fat, stubby rigatoni) with sauteed artichokes and pecorino, and small elbow pasta sauced Sicilian-style in crumbled sausage and tomato. Pesto is strictly traditional, tossed with trofie, a twisted pasta from Liguria. I like the pappardelle with porcini, too, but puttanesca sometimes seems cooked down to a jam.

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A regional tour

Wednesday nights, Alto Palato gets back to its trattoria roots with a well-priced three-course menu that takes in a different region each week. Recently, a Tuscan menu began with pappa al pomodoro, an earthy bread and tomato soup. Then came a wonderful black risotto stained with squid ink and roasted pork in Chianti sauce. Most of the tables that night were large, and wine flowed freely. On Wednesdays, anyone who orders the prix-fixe menu can buy any bottle on the wine list at 40% off. It's the chance to drink up, to try a super Tuscan-like Terrabianca Campaccio or an Allegrini Amarone at a bargain price.

Thursday is porchetta night, when Escobar bones an entire little pig and stuffs it with dried fennel, garlic, salt and pepper. He starts it in the wood-burning oven and then finishes it in the regular oven. The fennel comes from Bagnaia north of Rome, owner Danilo Terribili's hometown. Alto Palato also has a garden that provides fresh herbs, lettuces, and in summer, some tomatoes.

One Thursday a month or so, actor Vincent Schiavelli guest-chefs with a menu usually gleaned from his three cookbooks. This is not just a star turn; the actor can really cook, and the dishes he makes are unusually interesting and subtle. Many come from his Sicilian grandfather, who was among the last in the long tradition of monza, master chefs who worked for noble families of Sicily and Naples.

That classic costoletta alla Milanese is still on the menu, a veal chop pounded on the bone, breaded and fried to a deep gold. Chicken cacciatore scented with rosemary is pretty good, too, and the whole sea bass roasted under a salt crust. But scottadito, baby lamb chops, sometimes taste more steamed than grilled, and the indifferent rib-eye could do without a sauce.

For dessert, gelato is still the best choice. Individual ricotta cheesecake is more crust than cheese, and sometimes stale. Nothing wrong with the tiramisu, but why order that ho-hum dessert when you can try one or more flavors of impeccable gelato -- crema, cioccolato, nocciola, pistachio and that wicked straciatella. I like to think Mauro Vincenti, wherever he is, would approve.

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Alto Palato

Rating: **

Location: 755 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 657-9271.

Ambience: Rather grand contemporary dining room with white-clothed tables, an Italophile crowd and, when the weather permits, alfresco dining on the patio.

Service: A mixed bag. Depending on the waiter, it varies from good to erratic to inattentive.

Price: Antipasti, $6.95 to $11.95; pizza, $10.95 to $13.95; primi, $13.95 to $16.95; secondi, $16.95 to $26.95; desserts, $6 to $7. Wednesday night three-course regional menu, $28.

Best dishes: Raw artichoke salad, black mussels and clams in white wine, prosciutto with burrata cheese, Margherita pizza, bombolotti con carciofi, elbow pasta in sausage ragu, chicken cacciatore, costoletta alla Milanese, grilled Tiger shrimp on rapini, gelato.

Wine list: A work in progress with a growing collection of interesting Italian wines and reasonable markups. Corkage $15.

Best table: A corner table on the patio.

Special feature: A special three-course, $28 menu on Wednesday nights explores a different region of Italy. For those ordering it, any bottle from the wine list is 40% off.

Details: Open Monday through Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. Valet parking, $5.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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