February – the shortest month of the year – is jam packed with days celebrating foods various and sundry. The days marked as “national food holidays” include tortilla chips and clam chowder, soup and pancakes, chili and pizza, tortellini and bagels & lox … among many, many others.
The day that intrigues me the most is National Fettuccine Alfredo Day on Feb. 7. Not just because it’s a notably tasty dish – and decidedly fattening – but also because the tales of its creation are pretty much pasta without sauce. Alfredo di Lelio, an Italian restaurateur, is credited with creating the dish in 1908, but the dish is his only if you’re willing to accept it on the sort of faith found at the nearby Vatican.
Consider: The recipe for fettuccine Alfredo – called “Roman pasta” at the time – first appears in a 15th-century cookbook by chef Martino da Como. It’s essentially the same as our modern version – pasta cooked and then, while still hot, coated with butter and “good cheese,” which evolved into parmesan.
Technically, it’s called “pasta al burro e parmigiano.” But when fledgling chef di Lelio began cooking at a restaurant owned by his mother, he added extra butter for his wife, who didn’t have much of an appetite after giving birth to their first son.
In 1914, he opened a restaurant of his own called Alfredo’s, where he referred to himself variously as “The King of Fettuccine,” “The Real King of Fettuccine,” “The Magician of Fettuccine,” “The Emperor of Fettuccine” and “The Real Alfredo.” For a guy who had claimed a recipe that was some 500 years old as his own, he had no lack of vanity.
Indeed, he eventually upgraded the name of the dish on his menu to maestosissime fettuccine all’Alfredo – “Most Majestic Fettuccine, Alfredo Style.”
He also got downright performative. Di Lelio started using gold cutlery to prepare the dish in a style described as a “spectacle reminiscent of grand opera.” It was prepared table-side, where the chef “bends over the great skein of fettuccine, fixes it intensely, his eyes half-closed, and dives into mixing it, waving the golden cutlery with grand gestures, like an orchestra conductor, with his sinister upwards-pointing twirled mustache dancing up and down, pinkies in the air, a rapt gaze and flailing elbows.”
The show transcended the roots of the preparation. American restaurateur George Rector described the preparation as being “accompanied by violin music.”
In 1927, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks dined at Alfredo’s. Jimmy Stewart ate there. So did Bob Hope, Anthony Quinn, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, Jack Lemmon, Ava Gardner, Tyrone Power, Sophia Loren and Cantinflas. The restaurant covered its walls with photos of the celebs.
And, here in America, fettuccine is everywhere. Even at Olive Garden, where it’s combined with chicken into chicken Alfredo; and shrimp, which makes it seafood Alfredo. Olive Garden also uses cream and garlic.
Alfredo sauces can be found at supermarkets across the land. You’ll even find versions out there that are reasonably close to the original. I haven’t come across any sushi with Alfredo sauce, but I fear it’s out there.
Where do I go when my soul cries out for a plate (served without gold cutlery, thank you)? Let me tell you…
457 W. 7th St., San Pedro; 310-514-0900, www.raffaelloristorante.com
Raffaello Ristorante is a passion project of the Cutri family, who have deep roots in the San Pedro restaurant world; father Gino Cutri worked at the fabled Papadakis Taverna. Indeed, over the years, the San Pedro dining scene was so totally dominated by Papadakis, and is still dominated by the sprawling San Pedro Fish Market.
It’s easy to forget that, like many port cities, San Pedro is at heart an outpost of Italy, both serious and casual, both eat-in and takeout. Along with Raffaello, there’s La Bocca Felice (in the space that used to be Papadakis), along with J. Trani Ristorante, La Siciliana, Buono’s Pizzeria, Sorrento’s Pizza House, Niko’s Pizzeria, Bonelli’s NY Pizzeria, Big Nick’s Pizza and Chef’s Corner Pizzeria. The list goes on.
But the beating Italian heart of San Pedro is easily Raffaello, and it’s on the opposite side of the street from an outpost of Michael’s. This is cuisine that’s both upscale and reasonably priced, especially when you consider the size of the portions. No one leaves Raffaello hungry, any more than they left Papadakis hungry.
Interestingly, the menu, though resolutely old school, isn’t obsessively old school. Modernist dishes like carpaccio don’t appear, but there are newer additions to the Italian Pantheon like meltingly soft burrata mozzarella with sliced tomatoes and basil, and risotto alla pescatore – dishes none of us grew up with in the Little Italys of our big cities.
On the other hand, we sure did grow up with spaghetti and meatballs – the fourth pasta dish listed among an impressive 25 creations, along with such beloved classics as fettuccini Alfredo, ravioli di ricotta, and pollo cacciatore.
But then, the above-mentioned ravioli doesn’t just come with ricotta. It arrives stuffed with mushrooms in a creamy pink sauce, and with lobster in an indulgent Alfredo sauce.
The chicken isn’t just cacciatore. It’s also parmigiana, marsala and piccata, Raffaello (stuffed with ham and spinach in an Alfredo sauce), fasciana (with sausage and peppers), Zia Teresa sautéed with sherry with mushrooms, shrimp and herbs) – and of course, just simply grilled.
There’s chicken with penne in a pesto sauce, and chicken with bowtie farfalle with broccoli, in that nearly ubiquitous Alfredo sauce. I guess I should mention there’s a chicken Caesar salad, a grilled chicken salad, and an insalata alla Leo with chicken and walnuts. There’s plenty of seafood as well – I am always cheered to see cioppino as an option – and veal as well.
If I’m feeling utterly indulgent, and my diet is (rarely) under control, I’d get the osso buco, as much for the long-cooked veal, as for the marrow in the shank. I grew up in a family that would compete for the marrow in the bones. A well-nourished shank would feed all of us.
We go here, mostly, for our roots. And we’re served so much, we keep eating it the whole next day.
815 Deep Valley Drive, Rolling Hills Estates; 310-377-5757, mamaterano.com
For Mama Terano, Chef Robert Bell has opted to go back to his family’s roots in Avellino, Italy, and in Brooklyn, New York. He’s gone red sauce. And in the process, he’s created one of the most enjoyable restaurants in the South Bay. Symbolically, you have to ascend to the upper reaches of Palos Verdes hill to get there.
In a description of the history of his latest eatery, Robert writes, “Mama Terano was [my] Italian-born grandmother … [I] grew up in Mama Terano’s Brooklyn kitchen where [I] was loved and inspired to cook and eat well. This trattoria features Mama Terano’s wonderful Italian cooking … [that was] shared with family and friends around their large family table … along with good conversation and laughter.”
One of the first oddities (or perhaps I should say, “unique qualities”) about Mama Terano is that no bread is served. Chef Bell explains: “No basket of bread to start. Mama Terano cooked classic Italian dishes. You will get complimentary marinated olives to start. You don’t go to Mama Terano to eat bread. You go there to eat great Italian food.”
Which is not to say (oddly enough) that there’s no bread. But it’s not called “bread.” It’s called “scarpetti.” “Scarpetti is Italian for ‘little shoe’ – bread that visually resembles a little shoe. It comes with certain dishes, because you should sop up the sauce with the bread.”
And, interestingly, there are no napkins. “Not to worry,” writes Chef Bell, “you don’t have to wipe your chin on your sleeve. At Mama Terano you get the same food and same ‘mopina’ that Mama Terano had in her kitchen. A mopina is a cloth, kitchen towel. It’s what Mama Terano and her family used, it’s what you’ll use now.”
There’s one more item that you’d expect to find at a red sauce Italian restaurant, but won’t find at Mama Terano: “There’s no pizza on the menu. Mama Terano made it, but not often. If you have young kids who refuse to eat anything else, there are any number of restaurant chains that specialize in pizza.”
That said, they do offer a baked, topped flatbread at Mama Terano. So, there’s a pizza equivalent. Not pizza, but if you squint, and the light is just right.
You can feel Mama’s touch in the selection of meatballs. There are three of them – a beef meatball topped with a marinara sauce that’s very Brooklyn; a lamb meatball in a mint pesto, that’s very Palos Verdes; and a pork meatball in an Alfredo sauce that splits the difference.
And Mama is definitely found in the noodle dishes – some made with dry pasta (like Mama’s spaghetti with the tomato and beef sauce old timers refer to as “gravy”); some made with fresh egg pasta (try the classic linguine with shrimp scampi, the fettuccine Alfredo, the fettuccine carbonara); the stuffed pastas (ravioli heaven); the layered and baked pastas (both Mama and Chef Robert make one heck of a meat lasagna).
There’s more – chicken cacciatore, pork Milanese, Tuscan scampi and beans, chicken parmesan and so forth. And for dessert, there’s a fabulous layered, flavored gelato called “copetta,” because of the cup in which it’s served.
Did Mama Terano serve copetta? Probably not. But she’d love it if she tasted it – it’s the right dish at the end of the right meal.
2223 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena; 310-323-7993, www.lomelis.com
Lomeli’s is a long, narrow room, with booths against the walls and two-person tables down the middle.
The two-tops (as they’re called in the business) are odd, for their chairs are on wheels, with high backs and arms; they’re the sort of chairs you might find in an executive office. They’re comfortable chairs, they’re just very unexpected – it’s not many restaurants where the chairs are on rollers.
Though Lomeli’s only dates back to 1978, the menu feels far older, with many retro touches that are a treat to find. One is the complimentary glass of wine that comes with the Luncheon Specials and the Complete Dinners.
The wine is nothing to get too excited about – my server asked me if I wanted a glass of Chablis, “blush or red.” What arrived was a decent generic glass of wine, that was more a nice gesture than anything else. And a rather venerable gesture – back in the 1930s and ’40s, when most local restaurants offered pre-set menus, a glass of wine was regularly listed as an appetizer (along with a green salad, a bowl of consommé, and often a scoop of chopped chicken liver – that was California Cuisine half a century ago).
The options here are classics, right out of Naples. There’s a multitude of raviolis to choose from, variously filled with beef, cheese, spinach, shrimp or chicken, and variously doused with tomato sauce, marinara sauce, meat sauce, meatballs, pesto, pesto with mushrooms, sausage, mushroom sauce, and Alfredo sauce.
There’s baked cannelloni and baked manicotti, both dishes large enough to feed a small village. Lasagna is done five ways; shrimp scampi is done four ways (two with scallops, two without). Alfredo sauce and red sauce appear in almost equal amounts, the former making for one serious hit of caloric intensity. (Damn the cholesterol – full speed ahead!)
My particular favorites are a pair of pasta-less casseroles – one based around meatballs, thick and heavy and crazed with flavor; the other built around sausages. In both cases, the meat is melded together with gobbets of melted cheese. In both cases, you can have them over pasta for a buck extra. I passed on the pasta, as a sop to my expanding girth.
For those in need of emotional support, there are four pre-set combos that offer a bit of this and a bit of that, basically mixing and matching lasagna, ravioli, spaghetti and sundry sauces.
There’s a do-it-yourself section as well, where you can mix seven pastas with 13 sauce options – the pasta shells with clam sauce and garlic is a nice way to go. There’s a classic antipasto, served in two sizes, overflowing with ingredients in both cases. (“Abbondanza” is the driving theme here.)
And they offer a perfectly decent thin-crust pizza, with 18 toppings and a crust that holds up well enough, though it’s not quite as resilient as your standard New York pizza, which never droops at all.
For those dropping by for lunch, there are daily specials, including such simple pleasures as the Wednesday special of a slice of pepperoni pizza with a side of spaghetti (a combo right out of my Bronx childhood), and the weekend special of a meatball sandwich with a side of spaghetti. Not “pasta,” mind you, but spaghetti in the old Italian-American style.
Among the sandwich options, there’s both a submarine and a torpedo (it’s the shape and size of the roll that determines the moniker).
And on the back page of the menu, there’s a selection of hot dinner trays to go. You can get a tray of meatballs with bell peppers and cheese that feeds 20; it comes with garlic bread. I figure that’s not something I should have in the fridge. Italian meatballs are a great late-night treat. I know my wife would not be kind if she found me sitting in the kitchen at 2 in the morning, eating one meatball after another.
316 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach; 310-318-6098, www.thefrittomisto.com
What Fritto Misto offers are big orders of pasta, both pre-assembled and do-it-yourself, along with a small assortment of appetizers (which includes the dish that gives the restaurant its name – a big pile of fried food called fritto misto that consists of crunchy hunks of shrimp, calamari, artichoke hearts and whatever vegetable happens to be in season, along with a garlic mayo and a mildly spiced red sauce).
A recent menu included 28 pasta dishes, along with 16 unadorned pastas that can be flavored with 17 sauces and 18 “add-ins.” If I remember my math correctly, that adds up to close to 5,000 possible dishes – which means even the fussiest eater should be able to find something!
The menu, as I said, is fairly basic, though there is a strong leaning toward cream sauces on the pastas.
If you’re a party of four or more, the fritto misto combination is de rigeur (it’s a bit overwhelming for two, and totally overwhelming for one). The Misto Salad of carrots, zucchini, tomatoes, walnuts and pine nuts is a good place to pause for breath, before plunging into the New Orleans pasta with its seared chicken and shrimp, the Santa Fe ravioli with its pico de gallo sauce, or the classic fettuccini Alfredo in its bath of butter and cream.
This is not what might be called subtle cooking; it’s big-plate food for folks hungry after a day at the beach. The owners believe that more is more. And more is exactly what you get at Fritto Misto.
Di Roma Cucina
23863 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance; 310-378-9999; www.diromacucina.com
Di Roma Cucina is a much appreciated island – almost a refuge – in a sea of restaurant chains.
Just a few blocks to the north, there are branches of both El Torito and El Pollo Inka. To the south, there’s the Black Bear Diner – a cutely coy name, since the Black Bear is far too big to be a “diner.” And across the street, there’s Olive Garden, which is an Italian chain that cranks out Italian food that would puzzle the eaters of Italy. This is pasta at its most Americanized – which is not necessarily a good thing, not at all.
By contrast, Di Roma would be recognized, with ease and pleasure, in any piazza in Italy. Di Roma Cucina is a classic Italian restaurant, defined by the presence of pizza and pasta, along with calamari fritti and caprese. But those Italian crowd-pleasers are just part of the mix.
Meandering through the offerings you’ll find a handful of burgers for lunch, a Greek salad and lamb gyros. Once again, at lunch, there are six pita sandwiches, nine subs, and 10 “gourmet” sandwiches. Plenty to choose from!
You can get a pizza topped with pineapple and Canadian bacon – which would probably give locals conniptions over there. Over here, it’s pretty much expected. (And the notion of pineapple on pizza makes me wonder…why? Vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce would only be a bit more unsettling!)
Di Roma is a comfortably spare room – white walls, polished wood floors, flowers in vases, brightly colored paintings on the wall, comfortable tables, many for two. It’s a romantic setting, a restaurant in which to lose yourself in your companion’s smile, and the shared experience of some very good food, along with a modest wine list, that’s mostly Italian, but not all. (In California, respect must be paid to our local vintages!)
But really, the point here is the food. And it sure is different – though in a familiar way. I loved caprese. I’ve always loved caprese. The cleanness of a plate of soft, sweet bufala mozzarella and sliced tomatoes, flavored with basil leaves and a bit of balsamic – wonderful!
But the caprese at Di Roma, which is properly described as a “caprese plate,” is something else again. It’s about twice the size of most capreses, a big plate of mozzarella and tomato slices, floating atop a sea of dressing, topped with lots of sliced parmesan, with squiggles of balsamic over it all. It’s unexpectedly substantial; along with some warm bread, it could make for a good light lunch. But then, there’s so much more.
The pizzas and the pastas are pretty much as expected; aside from the pineapple, which is quirky mostly to me, there’s nothing especially oddball among the pies. And the pastas run to the world of marinara, Alfredo and pesto. But who would have expected an appetizer of the grilled meat combo of gyros appetizer, along with a gyros pita – a funny thing that arrives wrapped up like a baby, swaddled in paper, which holds a sandwich with many ingredients all happily living together.
Unwrap the pita, and it springs open from the pressure of having so much packed inside. It’s really a knife-and-fork sandwich, for if you pick it up as is, it will probably fall apart. You have to deconstruct it to eat it, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just, you know…a thing.
This is a neighborhood Italian restaurant, with a neighborhood defined more by the cars driving by than by the locals living down the street. It’s decidedly, almost aggressively, not trendy. It’s a local shop, with reasonable prices, and a menu of old favorites – and new favorites as well.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected]