Mr. Sinatra has left the room

Times Staff Writer

CHICKEN Beckerman, rest in peace.

The dish that for years was the No. 1 seller at Matteo's, an old-school Italian restaurant with a Hollywood following, will probably soon be forgotten. The restaurant itself, which used to be one of the hottest spots in town -- a hangout for Frank Sinatra (who grew up across the street from Matteo's founder Matty Jordan), Sammy Davis Jr., Lucille Ball and just about everyone who was anyone, has largely been forgotten too. But its new owner wants to change that.

With its dark red walls, low lighting, red imitation leather booths, chandeliers with leopard-print lampshades, the toy train that makes the rounds near the ceiling in the front room (where Chianti bottles are strung up across the entry), it's hard to imagine that this was once a hot spot. But the illustration for a 1967 Times article about "the age of the Beautiful Person" ("Where the Elite Meet to Eat") tells it all. In it, beau peeps such as George Plimpton, Nancy Wilson and Angie Dickinson named their favorite dining spots. "Scandia," said Melvin Belli. "The Bistro," said Rosalind Russell. "Matteo's," said Pierre Salinger. It stayed hot for at least two decades.

Claire Heron, the principal in a real estate management company, bought the Westwood Boulevard restaurant (and the land it occupies) from Jordan's widow late last year. She never intended to run a restaurant -- she planned to lease Matteo's to another operator or sell the business. But every restaurateur she approached wanted to close it and start afresh with a new concept. Heron (who owns the place with her three children) couldn't stand the idea. "I said there's hardly a single solitary Hollywood restaurant left, and I'm going to save it."

That meant getting a new chef. The food at Matteo's, Heron says, was terrible. She hired Don Dickman, the chef behind Rocca, the well-regarded Italian spot in Santa Monica that closed in 2005.

But is it possible to turn around a place with so much history without losing its character?

New and improved

ON a Tuesday night last month, loyal regulars were handed, for the first time, Dickman's radically different new menu. To many, it wasn't a good surprise. Instead of scampi Al Davis and mozzarella marinara, they found pan-roasted tiny Maine mussels and chicken liver crostini. Instead of J.F.K. with classic Alfredo, they found bucatini carbonara with guanciale (cured pork jowl) and pecorino Romano. Goodbye, sausage and peppers Stallone; hello, wild boar sausages with Tuscan beans, tomato, sage and green apple mostarda.

And though there was a "Matteo's Classics" page at the end of the menu, with Dickman's new, improved versions of dishes like veal Parmigiana with marinara sauce and baked mozzarella (formerly veal Parmigiana Don Rickles), baked clams oreganata and Matteo's chopped salad, there was no chicken Beckerman.

Dickman's goal was to attract young diners who'd lap up sweetbread and squash blossom fritto misto and brasato al Chianti, while losing as few of the old crowd as possible.

"We were sinking miserably financially," Heron said. "Even when we had overflow crowds, I was spending more money than we were taking in."

"The customers had figured out how to manhandle our staff to get a lot of free stuff," explains Dickman. "They'd substitute pasta for a side order of vegetables. Or they'd split stuff." The lasagna, for instance, "Matty's Original 1963 Recipe." "It's the Goodyear blimp of lasagna," Dickman said. "One order weighs about 20 pounds. It's Long Island Jewish lasagna. We'd use the cheapest noodles and ricotta."

Though the Herons have cleaned up the place, replacing the old leopard-print carpet with a fresh leopard-print carpet, changing some of the paintings (they're leaving the Red Skelton clown painting, of course), they're not otherwise going to touch the decor. Frank Sinatra's portrait still hangs over Sinatra's booth, table 8. If they removed it, the regulars wouldn't stand for it -- and it wouldn't feel like Matteo's.

As it is, Dickman and consulting general manager Colin Trauberman have had enough on their minds worrying about how the old regulars will react when they see their favorite dishes missing. Early in the evening the new menu debuted, Dickman gathered the waiters in the kitchen for a pre-service pep talk.

"Frank Sinatra is gone," he told them. "Matty is gone. I'm here. And you're here. People have been coming here so long a lot of people don't even look at the menu; they already know what they want. Now it's a new menu. They have to look at it."

No one expected the old regulars to take the demise of dishes like chicken Beckerman sitting down. "The next couple of days are gonna be difficult," Dickman told the wait staff. "If you have a problem with a table, don't try to solve it yourself. Get Colin. You're not the bad guy. Colin's the bad guy." The plan was to try to calm angry diners by buying them a glass of wine or a dessert.

The restaurant opened at 5 p.m. It was just 5:05 when two women walked in. Ten minutes later, there was a scene at their table, and the waiter sent Trauberman over to soothe them.

"I don't want pasta," one of the women was saying. "I came for the chicken." That would be the Beckerman. She turned to her friend, "They changed the owners; that's why they changed the menu. I know a lot of people will be disappointed."

Named for film producer Sidney Beckerman, a regular customer who ordered the chicken every Sunday, the dish was, according to Dickman, "the most disgusting thing we served."

"It was horrible," Trauberman said. "It has chicken. They chop it up and put a lot of oil in the pan. They take a big potato, chop it up and put it all around the chicken. They put it in the oven. They cook it 1 1/2 or 2 hours. They take it out and put parsley on it. Chopped. And put it in the oven again so the parsley gets burnt."

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Dickman was leading a tasting of the new menu items for the waiters so they could describe them to diners. Javier Perez, the garde manger cook, set out a dish of roast peppers. The waiters crowded around, notepads in hand.

"OK," said Dickman. "I add a couple of marinated anchovies on top. This is a caper, but it's a caper berry." Next, the olives -- Perez slid over a small dish. "They're marinated in fennel seed, chili flakes, thyme, garlic, lemon peel." He held up a big, deep red olive. "Believe it or not, this is an olive. This is a red Ceregnola. This green one is a green Ceregnola. You don't have to remember -- call me out to the table. The black is Gaeta." A lecture on olives followed -- Dickman is passionate about Italian ingredients; he's traveled widely throughout Italy, and the cause of real Italian cooking has become his calling.

Kitchen challenge

THERE would be challenges not just for the wait staff but for the cooks too. Although Dickman had brought his sous-chef from Rocca, Armando Parada, as well as his pasta maker, Maria Gomez, most of the guys in the kitchen had been working at Matteo's for years. All the pasta was precooked (or pre-over-cooked, as Dickman put it) and just had to be reheated and sauced. Other dishes had pre-cooked components and had only to be assembled and reheated.

Now the line cooks would be called upon to make fried stuffed squash blossoms a la minute. "We'll keep the pasta section smaller in order to cook it to order," Dickman said. "The guys are really quaking in their boots."

Back in the dining room, Trauberman had convinced the Beckerman woman to try Dickman's chicken piccata with lemon, capers, white wine and parsley. Though it was Tuesday night (Dickman thought it best to introduce the new menu on a slow night), it turned out to be busy. In restaurant-speak, the kitchen got slammed.

The diners were none the wiser, though one, Stanley Stone, commented that the service was strange. "The presentation was very nice," he added. "And the host was great -- very hospitable. He obviously wanted to make us happy, and we miss the chicken Beckerman. I think they should put it back on the menu." He and his wife, Dee, had been coming to Matteo's for 30 years, he said, and then he started reminiscing about the Beckerman.

"It was delicious," he said. "They bake it and they have a certain kind of garlic on it and many, many things. It was very tasty, very wholesome."

"I think it was sauteed -- ," said his wife.

"I don't think it was sauteed," said Stanley, interrupting.

"You had your turn to tell the chicken Beckerman," Dee said. "Now it's my turn. It definitely had garlic and it had parsley, lots of parsley. It was crisp, but it wasn't burnt."

Ingrid Mueller, the early bird who had come expressly for the Beckerman, said her chicken piccata was "very good." She'd absolutely be back. "Because the ambience is so unique," she said. "The paintings, the carpet -- you can talk. You feel private."

"We've been coming here for 35 years," said another diner, Shelly Pepper. "And the stuff is as good as it's ever been."

Not all the customers were so happy. "You don't take something nice and get rid of the past," said Sandy Weinberg, a longtime regular.

Would she and her husband return? "As long as Leo's behind the bar," she said, referring to bartender Leo Ortega, who's been working at Matteo's since shortly after it opened. "We'll be back, but we'll be sitting at the bar."

Last Sunday night, the place was packed. Dickman was presenting a wild game ragu menu. He had sent e-mails to former Rocca customers; along with a huge party of the Heron family and their friends, they filled up the place. Some were wine enthusiasts -- part of the ragu deal was that corkage would be waived for any bottle with a pre-1990 vintage or any bottle purchased from Wine Expo in Santa Monica. Next to the new dishes such as crispy pork belly with Castelluccio lentils and foie gras tidbits and "millionaire's pasta" with lobster and chanterelles was listed the ragu menu. It began with fusilli tossed with a rich, winey, wild game ragu, and continued with a wild boar braciola, pheasant polpettine stuffed with foie gras, venison sausage and buffalo rib eye, all sauced with that ragu. Diners ate it up. The mood was positively festive. Lights twinkled, wine flowed, the piano player played "Come Fly With Me."

You could almost imagine that Matteo's might come back.

brenner@latimes.com

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