Local Heroes: They're Close to Home-and They Care
Il Forno and Cafe Jacoulet are part of the neighborhood
The world is populated by three kinds of restaurants. In Los Angeles, the most important is the hot new restaurant-the one. that just opened, the one that everybody talks about, the one that nobody can get into. Hot new restaurants, however, don't last; sooner or later they either die or turn into one of the other varieties.
Some become occasion places-the restaurants you go to on your anniversary, on your birthday or when your boss is taking you for an expense account blowout. These are the restaurants that invariably crop up on those lists of the best places in town. Owning such a restaurant is good for the ego. It can, however, be hard on the pocketbook, and most restaurateurs will tell you that all they really want is a restaurant of the third kind: the beloved neighborhood joint.
This is the kind of place that people go to again and again, the place that they think of as a home away from home. This is a restaurant where the waiters know you, you know the menu, and the chef knows your tastes.
Some beloved restaurants become famous; Spago and Chasen's are, after all, nothing more than neighborhood restaurants for stars. Most beloved restaurants, however, have a different clientele. They are frequented by ordinary people who live nearby and like the way the restaurant makes them feel. Each of these restaurants is a reflection of its neighborhood, and most go on for years making many people very happy. Recently I ate at two such restaurants.
I knew I was a regular when the free pizza finally appeared on the table," - said the friend who took me to Il Forno. One of the dozens of people whose devotion to the place knows no bounds, he's a regular who has been touting the place to me for quite some time. Judging by the numbers of free pizzas on the tables, he is not alone.
But how can you tell which pizzas are free? "It's easy," confides my friend, "This one's not on the menu. It's called pizza Ken, and you can't order it. See-it has no cheese." Pizza Ken is a light, crisp crust topped with a fine plain tomato sauce and a few shiitake mushrooms. I can see how it could easily become addictive; I'm already wondering how I am going to get one the next time I come in. How long before you become a regular?
Probably a longtime; it looks as if this small, clamorous restaurant is not in need of new customers. Most of the people who walk through the door seem to know one other. Kids hop from table to table, plates are passed around, there are a lot of waves and hugs. You are warmed by the atmosphere, and it feels very good to be here-at least once you get used to the decibel level.
The people who own Il Forno have done a very smart thing; they have created a trattoria for Los Angeles. It doesn't look like an Italian trattoria: It's a spare room in a shopping mall with an open kitchen and too many tables squeezed into too small a space. It doesn't taste like a trattoria in Italy either: The food is pure. L.A.-Italian, a mixture of very good pizzas, good salads, eclectic pastas with an American amount of sauce (too much), and entrees that are characterized by their robust flavors and generous size. But it feels like a trattoria: unpretentious, neighborly, overwhelmingly comfortable.
The pizzas are memorable. I barely manage to prevent myself from ordering another. Instead we have a . seafood salad made of baby shrimp, octopus, Calamata olives and squid tossed in a lemony dressing. If the squid were cooked a few seconds less, the salad would be even better. Pastas are served in enormous portions. They are so good that before I realize what I have done I have finished off a plateful of what look like torn ruffly edges of lasagna noodles in a lamb-based sauce.
My friend insists on ordering tonight's special pasta as well. "The owner says it's great," he says. It didn't sound great to me; it sounded as if it contained far too many ingredients. When the waiter was explaining it I got as far as chicken breasts, pine nuts, radicchio, sun-dried tomatoes, shiitake . . . and then lost track. We taste the dish, and sure enough, too many ingredients. It pains my friend to admit that the owner was wrong.
"But try this," he says, tucking into an enormous, and slightly tough veal chop topped with a mountain of shiitake mushrooms. "Isn't it great? We don't usually order entrees," he admits, "usually we just have salad and pizza
and pasta and get out the door for about $40 for two of us." He looks over at my plate, spears one of my Hawaiian prawns in whitewine and garlic sauce (very big and very good) and mentions that we really shouldn't miss the tirami su.
Of course 11 Forno has tirami su. It is, after all, on the Westside where every hip restaurant is noisy and no hip restaurant is without tirami su.
It's good tirami su. But personally I'd rather have another pizza.
Il Forno, 2901 Ocean Park Boulevard, Santa Monica. (213) 450-1241. Dinner for two, $30-$60.