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Tuscany to Sicily in three blocks

Times Staff Writer

It happens in Hollywood, it happens in real estate and now it’s happening in Brentwood. It’s a kind of copycat syndrome. In movies, they’re called sequels. In real estate, it’s called gentrification. In Brentwood, it’s called an explosion in Italian restaurants.

Just a month ago, when Pecorino opened in the former Zax location, it became the 17th Italian restaurant in Brentwood. Clearly, even those who can choose to eat anything they wish are choosing to eat Italian, again and again and again.

In just about half a mile along the neighborhood’s main street, San Vicente, on either side of Barrington Avenue, there are nine Italian restaurants: La Scala Presto, Osteria Latini, Palmeri Ristorante, Pecorino, Pizzicotto, Toscana, Vincenti, Frankie & Johnnie’s New York Pizza and Pasta and California Pizza Kitchen. A few doors south on Barrington, there’s the 6-month-old Sor Tino (in the former Rosti spot).

Trot up Barrington Avenue to Brentwood Village, and you’ll see four more: San Gennaro Cafe, Divino, Maria’s Italian Kitchen and Ristorante Peppone.

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A little farther west, there are three clustered around the corner of San Vicente and 26th Street -- Pane Fresco, Amici and Louise’s Trattoria. (OK, Amici and Louise’s are on the west side of 26th Street, technically putting them in Santa Monica, but who’s counting?)

Italian restaurants are spreading faster than you can say pasta pomodoro. Within blocks of each other, three new restaurants have opened in the last six months: Pecorino, Palmeri and Sor Tino. Fifteen months ago, neighbor Osteria Latini opened. It’s getting hard to keep them straight.

“You mean this isn’t Zax?” said one confused regular when he opened the menu on his first visit to Pecorino, where the lightning-quick, bare-bones remodeling barely concealed the old floor plan. One could be forgiven for confusing all of them, even though their proprietors insist that each is different.

Pecorino’s exposed brick walls, open kitchen and central Italian cuisine give it a casual, SoHo sensibility. With the nervous energy of a new father, co-owner Mario Sabatini warmly welcomes customers to his proud creation, an intimate restaurant with his chef and twin brother, Raffaelle, turning out the cuisine of their native Abruzzo. The 19 tables fill with neighboring business owners, wealthy producer types, foodie gal pals and curiosity seekers.

A few doors down is the 2-month-old Palmeri. Walk in the glass doors and you may encounter chef-owner Ottavio Palmeri speaking rapid Italian on the telephone a few feet away from the long granite bar and wood-burning grill and pizza oven. With its sleek, spare aesthetic, Palmeri is attracting urban sophisticates and native Italians, who linger over $12 pizza and cocktails at the bar, or who snuggle into a corner banquette for spaghetti with bottarga (Sicilian cured tuna roe), homemade cannelloni or unusual Sicilian wines.

Around the corner is Sor Tino, where chef Agostino Sciandri of Ago created a place that feels like a rustic Tuscan country house. Italian families linger over long Sunday lunches and couples huddle under heat lamps on the patio. It’s also one of the few to promote a takeout menu of four dozen items.

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Choices, choices

And Osteria Latini is an eclectic mix of Italian specialties created by chef-owner Paolo Pasio, a native of Trieste, northeast of Venice. The former owner of the Hollywood Canteen and the Mulholland Grill set up in the narrow space with 18 tables. He serves game -- venison and boar over polenta -- along with an ambitious menu of more than 30 specials a day.

“I work 24/7,” says Pasio, “because I love it.” And because he must.

For amazingly, despite the incredible concentration of Italian restaurants, business seems to be booming.

“I tell you what,” says Pasio. “Everybody is busy. Everyone is doing fine.”

Depending on the hour, each of the old or new Italian restaurants attracts a slice of old-timer, old-money Brentwood, trendy young apartment dwellers or patrons who follow the crowds.

Still, it hardly seems possible that the seats would be filled, say experts who study these kinds of things. “People won’t increase their frequency of eating a specific ethnicity of food all that much,” says Randall Hiatt, president of the Costa Mesa restaurant consultant firm Fessel International. “They won’t all of a sudden eat five or six times in an Italian restaurant just because they have that many more choices.”

On the other hand, there’s a certain critical mass that might just make the place a destination for those seeking all varieties of Italian.

“It’s like Little Italy over here,” says Sabatini of Pecorino. Like many of his fellow restaurateurs, he welcomes his Italian competitors. Sabatini says that in the few days he’s been open, chefs and staff from neighboring Italian restaurants have come by to eat and offer encouragement. “No one is complaining,” he says. “Everyone is busy.”

“It’s unbelievable! It’s amazing!” says Divino owner Goran Milic of the unremitting proliferation of pasta. The native Yugoslavian has operated his upscale Italian restaurant for nine years in a cul de sac in Brentwood Village and figures Italian food will always be popular, though he continually searches for new variations to offer.

“My philosophy is that people in L.A. are very clear about what they want to eat. Fish. Pasta. Salads. It has to be easy to understand,” says Milic, who observed the phenomenon while working in other Italian restaurants all over town, including Giorgio Baldi in Santa Monica.

The surge in Italian restaurants has been a hot topic of conversation at the Claudio D’Italia Hair Salon, which is a few doors down from Palmeri and Pecorino.

“I laugh at this every day,” says Larry Cupra, a native Italian who has co-owned the salon for almost 40 years and watched many restaurants come and go. “I keep telling people, if we get one more Italian restaurant here, we’ll have to be renamed Little Italy of Brentwood. I’m serious. I’m going to call the chamber of commerce and request it.”

As it happens, the president of the West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce is keenly aware of this very issue. The chamber’s president for six years, Jay Handal, also has owned the popular San Gennaro Cafe on Barrington Place since 1987.

“The more the merrier,” says Handal. “Honestly, my best advertising is my competition. I’m a firm believer that the more Italian restaurants that come in, and the more they diversify their menu, the harder I have to work to make my menu diversified and make my prices better.”

He’s got a point. Ask anyone and everyone will say that no two restaurants are really alike. It’s all about the niche. Handal’s San Gennaro is a family restaurant, where half of the tables on early Saturday nights include children. In late spring, teams from the Barrington Rec T-ball and baseball leagues have their end-of-season pizza parties here (yes, that’s coach Rob Reiner handing out trophies to his players). The paper-placemat spot is also the destination for budget oenophiles who love his long list of wines for $10 per bottle.

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Pizza variations

Even something as near to a commodity as pizza finds variations in the neighborhood. There’s the New York style of Frankie & Johnnie’s and Maria’s. There’s California’s Pizza Kitchen’s bounty of creative toppings. Palmeri, Sor Tino and Pizzicotto cook their pies in wood-burning ovens (but Pizzicotto’s sidewalk tables are prime for walk-by celebrity sightings.) When the famous are in fabulous mode, they take their brick-oven comfort food at the elegant Vincenti, where the rich atmosphere bathes them in flattering light.

What may be fueling Brentwood’s Italian explosion is the long-running success of Toscana and Ristorante Peppone. Indeed, two of Pecorino’s owners are former Toscana staffers. Pasio, of Osteria Latini, says that when he came to America in 1992, he started as a busboy at Toscana, even though he had owned a restaurant in Italy. Sciandri, of Sor Tino, is a onetime chef and partner in Toscana and the Rosti chain. And experienced diners recognize the same group of Italian waiters hopping from spot to spot around town.

Successful restaurant concepts have a way of inspiring imitators, says Hiatt, though few succeed. “The restaurant business is an aspirational business,” he says. “It’s an ego business -- ‘I can do better than that.’ But they may miss something in the formula, whether it’s site selection or the training of the people.”

The owners of the new restaurants insist that they aren’t out to take a slice of the pie from Toscana or Peppone, which have their distinct followings and personalities. Still, the packed tables and high tabs in those dining rooms must somehow kick-start aspirations.

Toscana is the Hollywood power-dinner spot with snappy service, a long marble bar and tables set with raw vegetables for pre-pasta snacking. The atmosphere buzzes with air-kisses, animated voices and the scent of $45 per order branzino. It’s busy for lunch; it’s packed for dinner, even though the prices are somewhat prohibitive, $18.50 for a grilled calamari appetizer, $39 for bistecca con fagioli, a rib steak with cannellini beans.

From the outside, Peppone looks fortified, like a private club. There are no windows, only a small door that opens into a cramped hostess station. Even on slow weeknights, chauffeurs wait in the strip-mall parking lot, pacing by the parking meters.

It’s a Brentwood institution that owner Gianni Paoletti opened on his own in 1974, two years after he opened Valentino with then-partner Piero Selvaggio. Prices in the red-walled, pink and white tablecloth restaurant are steep -- $19.50 for a bresaola appetizer; $35.75 for lamb medallions. If one didn’t know better, one would think the $28 ravioli had once been frozen, and that the Alfredo sauce came from a jar. The in-place for Brentwood residents to celebrate anniversaries or just feel cozy on a Thursday night, Peppone was once known for its list of great Italian wines at relatively bargain prices. Perhaps there are some great wine values; it’s hard to know when there’s no sommelier or anyone knowledgeable to help with the list.

The point is, it’s packed, just as Toscana tends to be. So it’s not surprising that people are seeking serious food that doesn’t cost and arm and a leg elsewhere.

Pasio and Sabatini offer serious Italian cuisine that’s less expensive than Toscana, Peppone or even Vincenti, the most expensive spot where dinner can easily top $75 a person, twice that if it’s white truffle season, or you’re ordering from the Piemonte section of the wine list.

As the competition grows, menus are beginning to include elements from previously underrepresented regions of Italy, such as the central coast (Pecorino and Divino). Palmeri’s chef-owner says his specialties are southern Italian dishes and Sicilian wines.

Amici is for those in the mood for elbow-room and deftly prepared, reasonably priced classics from all over Italy -- perfectly light fritto misto, absolutely correct linguini alle vongole. Italians gravitate here too, especially on weeknights.

No matter how delicious the ravioli fiori di zucca or fusilloni di Gragnano, customers won’t come back if the service stinks (unless you’re a neighborhood institution). Although at Peppone no one bothers to come around to see if you’re enjoying your cardboard-like veal Milanese, at the newer restaurants, they’re all open arms and warm buon giorno greetings. Stick around Pecorino long enough for dessert wine and the experienced waiter might just warn the unmarried women away from the on-the-make single men he’s already seen in action. Bring a picky 5-year-old to San Gennaro, and the 18-year-veteran waiter knows to show hungry children who order a “large” pizza the actual 16-inch pan. Relieved parents can then order the kid-sized 9-inch pizza.

In a business with a supremely high failure rate, the bulletproof formula of Toscana and Peppone are all the more amazing. So too is the very existence of so many look-alike competitors in a place such as Brentwood, says Hiatt. Normally, he says, such clusters of ethnic restaurants arrive with immigrant populations -- Chinese in Monterey Park, Vietnamese in Westminster and Japanese in Little Tokyo. By that measure, Brentwood should be overrun with low-carb, nouveau fad food served post Pilates or delivered curbside directly to the Range Rover.

From the restaurateurs’ perspective, however, Italian cuisine offers what guys like Hiatt call “a relatively low food cost.” That means they make great profits on the pasta, not so great on the imported branzino and enough on other menu “fillers” to stay afloat.

In her 40 years at Claudio D’Italia, stylist Linda Asklof has been asked plenty of times for restaurant recommendations and the list is ever changing.

“People come in here to find out what’s in and what’s good,” she says. “If you’re not good, you don’t last.”

Already, it seems residents are ready for a little diversification. Everyone has suggestions.

“You know what they need here?” says Dave Charlins, a 20-something apartment dweller sipping his American coffee at Starbucks (home of Italian cappuccino and cafe latte). “A hardware store. They’ve got everything else -- book stores, ice cream parlors. And you know what else? If they had a strip club, the place would be on fire.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Always room for one more?

The proliferation of Italian restaurants in Brentwood makes the neighborhood a veritable Little Italy.

Amici

2538 San Vicente Blvd.

Santa Monica

(310) 260-4900

California Pizza Kitchen

Brentwood Gardens Mall

11677 San Vicente Blvd.

(310) 826-3573

Divino

11714 Barrington Court

(310) 472-0886

Frankie & Johnnie’s New York Pizza and Pasta

11753 San Vicente Blvd.

(310) 442-9500

La Scala Presto

11740 San Vicente Blvd.

(310) 826-6100

Louise’s Trattoria

264 26th St.

Santa Monica

(310) 451-5001

Maria’s Italian Kitchen

11723 Barrington Court

(310) 476-6112

Osteria Latini

11712 San Vicente Blvd.

(310) 826-9222

Palmeri Ristorante

11650 San Vicente

(310) 442-8446

Pane Fresco

13050 San Vicente Blvd.

(310) 587-0772

Pecorino

11604 San Vicente Blvd.

(310) 571-3800

Pizzicotto

11758 San Vicente Blvd.

(310)442-7188

Ristorante Peppone

11628 Barrington Court

(310) 476-7379

San Gennaro Cafe

140 S. Barrington Place

(310) 476-9696

Sor Tino

908 S. Barrington Ave.

(310) 442-8466

Toscana

11633 San Vicente Blvd.

(310) 820-2448

Vincenti

11930 San Vicente Blvd.

(310) 207-0127

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Sources: ESRI, Geographic Data Technology, Times research


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