A little pasta, a lot of whirl

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

WHEN a new ristorante opens in Pacific Palisades, it’s big news for restaurant-starved locals. And when the chef is Antonio Mure, former partner chef of Piccolo in Venice and La Botte in Santa Monica, is it any wonder the place has been thronged from Day One? His cooking at those two spots put them on the culinary map.

OK, so the location, an upscale strip mall off Sunset Boulevard, is not so simpatico. And because Il Carpaccio is Mure’s own restaurant, opened after he left his Piccolo and La Botte partnership with Stefano De Lorenzo, the decor is simple: black-framed mirrors, vintage photos of Sophia and Gina and Mastroianni, walls surfaced in stick-on bricks, and near the kitchen, a giant poster of the iconic Fiat Cinquecento. The whole effect is something like a large rec room with tables and an Italian theme.

But never mind, the food is what counts, and Mure is turning out credible Italian cuisine with a menu that features an ample array of antipasti and pasta dishes and just a small selection of main courses.

The wait staff is savvy about the way Westsiders want to eat -- informally, and mostly pasta. And with most pastas less than $20, Il Carpaccio comes in well under the prices at such perennial favorites as Toscana or Vincenti.

The name comes from the popular raw beef dish, which in turn is named for the Venetian Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio, who had a thing for the color red. The carpaccio dish was, in fact, created by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice (Italy) to please a client who was forbidden by her doctor to eat cooked meat.

Sliced as fine as prosciutto, the raw red beef covers the entire plate and is decorated with fine lines of mayonnaise flavored with mustard and a dash of Worcestershire. And Il Carpaccio’s is one of the better versions in town.

Even better, and more original, is Mure’s carpaccio of branzino and sea urchin. The chef takes raw Mediterranean striped bass, rolls the fillet around sea urchin roe, and slices it so finely, the fish is almost transparent. Each rose-tinged slice has a heart of ocher sea urchin.

I love the iodine sea-taste of the urchin against the branzino, with a touch of lemon to wake up the flavors. Grilled calamari rolled up like little cigars and served with sauteed Swiss chard is a refreshing departure from the usual fried calamari with tomato dipping sauce.

When one of the veteran Italian waiters wants to recite the specials, listen up. He might be proposing moscardelli, tiny octopus cooked with tomatoes; it’s delicious. Or a salad of radicchio and greens with halved Red Flame grapes, caramelized walnuts and nuggets of Gorgonzola.

Almost every Italian restaurant in town has a similar salad, usually made with pears, but the tart-sweet grapes set this version apart. Another worthy special is shredded radicchio salad with a pungent anchovy and Parmesan dressing.

It didn’t take long for the local, Italian expat contingent to find its way to Il Carpaccio. One night, a big table of Italians is celebrating a birthday, and waiters, the chef, everybody who speaks even a smidgen of the language convenes to sing “Tanti Auguri a Te” (Happy Birthday).

The smiling, dark-haired hostess remembers faces and is invariably helpful, explaining each dish to someone who wants to order takeout, say, or changing tables for someone who asks for something quieter.

The truffle routine

With voices bouncing off the hard surfaces of the room, the 80-seat restaurant can be quite noisy. But then, so is just about everywhere I go.

It’s not the noise level, however, that prevents you from catching the price of the special pasta with truffles. It’s because the waiter fails to mention that instead of costing less than $20 like the menu’s other pasta dishes, that special agnolotti (Piedmont-style ravioli) stuffed with fonduta and showered with truffles is a whopping $70.

I don’t understand the policy. Customers knowledgeable about truffles are going to ask the price. But what about the less informed customer who thinks it might be fun to try some, without an inkling of the cost?

He or she is going to be very surprised, not to mention highly annoyed, when the bill arrives with a $70 charge for a plate of pasta. For shame.

After having ascertained the cost, I order the agnolotti with truffles, and the chef comes out to ceremoniously shave the truffles over the dish himself. Hey, that must be worth something. Taking a marble-sized truffle from a bowl of similarly undersized ones, he vigorously shaves the prized fungus over my plate, covering it in a lavish blizzard of truffle flakes.

Normally, this would be a good thing, except that you practically have to bury your nose in the pasta to pick up any of the scent, and with a white truffle, scent is the entire point. Granted, this is not a great year for truffles, but these are pitiful -- and expensive. Save your money.

I would have been perfectly happy, though, to order just a plate of the pasta. The chef’s agnolotti al plin -- ravioli with a plin or pinch -- are stuffed with fonduta, which is Fontina cheese melted in milk and mixed with an egg yolk. The pasta is a bit thick, but the flavor is wonderful.

Sometimes Mure makes cassunziei all’Ampezzana, pasta stuffed with earthy red beets and tossed in a butter, Parmesan and poppy-seed sauce, a dish from the ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo that he used to make at his previous restaurants. The combination of flavors is delightful.

Hard work, focus

It’s unfortunate that Mure has given up making pizzas for the moment. Pacific Palisades kiddies may be disappointed, but if that means the chef is now giving his full attention to the rest of the menu, it may be for the good.

If you peek into the kitchen, the guy is cooking like a whirling dervish. He works incredibly hard, trying to run this restaurant with a minimum of staff.

That means Mure is offering only a handful of main courses. Maybe with time, he’ll expand them, but for now your best bets are the first courses and the pastas. In this neighborhood, that may well turn out to be enough. Look around, almost everyone is having a pasta.

As for main courses, the old-fashioned veal scaloppine offers some Italian comfort. The scaloppine are a little floury, but the veal is tender. A thick veal chop, a special one night, is decent too, just not particularly inspiring with its sauce of slippery porcini mushrooms.

Tagliata -- grilled, sliced steak -- on a bed of arugula shows better than expected, mainly because the cut is hanger steak and has some real flavor. It’s not Italy’s most exciting dish, for sure, but a reliable choice here.

Roasted rabbit with sage and lemon is good too, but really, it tastes just like a mild chicken. And when almost every main dish comes with the same accompaniments -- diced roasted potatoes and a swatch of spinach or Swiss chard, that’s just a bit lazy.

Wine buffs who have visions of finding a sweet little list replete with top-notch Chianti Classicos, Rosso di Montalcinos or reds from Mt. Etna will be disappointed with this halfhearted wine list made up of mostly second-rate producers and the most obvious California labels.

If you’re stuck, there is at least one terrific bottle on the list: a crisp, minerally Pieropan Soave Classico from the Veneto.

Desserts are reasonably priced and reasonably good. Check out the panna cotta with berries. Although it doesn’t have the seductive silkiness of the best, it does have a robust cream flavor. Bars of dark chocolate ganache with crushed hazelnuts inside will satisfy any sweet tooth.

But whatever you do, don’t miss the pasticciera alla Napoletana, a dense ricotta cheesecake flavored with orange peel that makes a beautiful finale.



Il Carpaccio

Rating: *1/2

Location: 538 Palisades Drive, Los Angeles; (310) 573-1411; www.ilcarpaccioristorante .com.

Ambience: Suburban Italian from Antonio Mure, former chef at Piccolo and La Botte. Decor is minimal, but once everybody is eating, no one notices or cares.

Service: Veteran Italian waiters know all the tricks.

Price: Crudi e carpacci, $13.25 to $18; hot antipasti and soups, $9.50 to $17; most pasta dishes, $16 to $21; main courses, $24 to $38; desserts, $7.

Best dishes: Beef carpaccio, branzino and sea urchin carpaccio, agnolotti with fonduta, pasta stuffed with beets in poppy-seed sauce, veal scaloppine, tagliata of beef, pasticciera alla Napoletana.

Wine list: Replete with second-rate Italian producers and obvious California selections. Corkage fee, $15.

Best table: One in the front corner.

Details: Open for dinner from 5 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, until 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, until 10:30 p.m. Sunday. Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Wine and beer. Lot parking in front.