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…
2514 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; 818-985-9876, www.roccostavernla.com
It’s hard to go past Rocco’s Tavern without pausing to check one of the many games on the big screen. It’s hard not to think that food is beside the point here. But sports fans like to nosh in between cheers; consider the zillions of wings consumed at the many branches of Hooters.
Were Rocco’s not a sports bar, it would be a good old school red sauce Italian restaurant, competition for Buca di Beppo down the street. This is the land of chopped antipasto salad – a little heavy on the romaine, but still with plenty of olives, ham, salami, capicola and provolone. There’s a very garlicky garlic bread, and a nice messy melted cheese and pepperoni garlic bread, which is more an oddly shaped pizza than a slab of bread.
Though there are salads – along with the antipasto, there’s an oversized Caesar, a Greek, a grilled salmon and a spinach salad – this is, in the great sports bar tradition, not a place to go when you’re on a diet.
Consider, for instance, the “white fries” – french fries topped with Alfredo sauce, garlic, mozzarella and pepperoni. There’s a seven-cheese mac and cheese, which along with the seven cheeses is made with bacon and a garlic and Alfredo sauce. There are pizza fries too, which are like the white fries, except they’re made with marinara sauce. Which I guess makes them a diet dish, compared with the Alfredo.
And there’s more – a multi-patty burger, an eggplant parmigiana hero, a meatball and parmigiano hero, and an Italian sausage, pepper and onion hero right off the streets of New York’s Little Italy. There are pastas with pesto cream sauce, and that ubiquitous Alfredo.
By comparison, the steamed mussels and littleneck clams are practically a Weight Watchers creation. Though I am unsure what to make of the “salad pizza,” which sits in two worlds. It’s a funny dish that needs to be eaten quickly, before the salad gets the crust too wet.
Oh, and if you want to be efficient in your eating, get the boneless chicken wings, breaded with panko crumbs and corn flakes. With no bones, you can inhale them that much faster.
The Oaks at Lakeside
16817 Ventura Blvd., Encino; 747-217-4002, www.theoaksatlakeside.com
The Oaks at Lakeside is a sanctuary from the world, a haven of respite, a nearly Zen experience. I wonder if there are groups who come for lunch, and wind up staying for dinner. Once you’re seated by the lake, the 24/7 worries of CNN seem to fade like the morning mist.
The Oaks at Lakeside is managed by veteran GM Donato Ricci, who has a quarter-century in the restaurant business to his credit. His executive chef is Neno Mladenovic, who spent 32 years cooking Italian for an endless array of celebrities at the legendary Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood. For three decades, his pastas were devoured by the makers and shakers of Hollywood. And now, at The Oaks at Lakeside, he’s making them for the rest of us. We should be duly honored.
The setting is classic, and decidedly old school – the trees overhead both cooling the space, and perfuming it with green sweetness. At The Oaks, life is good. And so is the food – even if the roots of the cooking have moved from one side of the world to the other. And sometimes, not all that much.
Show up for brunch on weekends, for instance, and the menu is less Italian than it is at dinner. There’s an Italian omelet of sausage, mozzarella and marinara sauce. But it’s served with a choice of hash browns or potatoes O’Brien. And there are lemon ricotta pancakes; ricotta is an Italian cheese after all. There’s a fine burrata salad. Eggs Florentine as well. But otherwise, this is a brunch of huevos rancheros, bagels & lox, buttermilk pancakes and a house burger – all the usual suspects.
But come for dinner, and the cooking flips from one continent to another. The appetizers run to steamed clams, mozzarella doused in marinara, fried calamari and shrimp scampi. The burrata salad – a wonderful dish, and an easy addiction – reappears, before the menu moves to the chicken Milanese and chicken marsala, the two-veal scaloppini, the lobster ravioli and homemade lasagna.
There’s a world of favorites – comfort food for those in need of solace – that include chopped salad, chicken parmesan, hunter’s chicken (with onions, mushrooms and bell peppers in marinara), grilled portobello mushrooms and sautéed whitefish.
The tiramisu and caramel cheesecake are both made in-house. Obviously, the Fosselman’s ice cream isn’t – vanilla and double cappuccino. I’m sure the tiramisu is a joy. But I am weak in the presence of Fosselman’s. It’s from Alhambra – and it’s as good as anything I’ve had in Italy, where the gelato parlors offer a taste of heaven. So does Fosselman’s. And so does The Oaks.
A meal here makes me as happy as any Italian feast this side of the Atlantic
Pagliacci’s Trattoria Taverna
4366 Coldwater Canyon Ave., Studio City; 818-506-4111, www.pagliaccistaverna.com
Those who know opera know that “Pagliacci” was composed by Ruggiero Leoncavallo in 1892, and made famous by Enrico Caruso in his clown costume singing “Vesti La Giubba” in one of his most famous roles, thanks in part to his maniacal laugh during the song.
In case the connection isn’t clear to you, you’ll hear the song playing at Pagliacci’s Trattoria Taverna, a haven at the busy intersection of Coldwater Canyon Avenue and Moorpark Street in Studio City, where there’s an oversized poster of “Pagliacci” in the bar. But where “Pagliacci” is a tragic opera, Pagliacci’s the restaurant is far from tragic – indeed, it’s a culinary opera, worthy of a standing ovation.
As waves of trendiness have swept across the east San Fernando Valley, it’s easy for an old school Italian eatery to get lost in the folderol and hoopla. The joys of pasta and pizza have been given short shrift; good for the kids, I guess, but far from au courant. And then, as I did, you drop by at Pagliacci’s, with a craving for tagliatelle or pappardelle – and happiness ensues.
On one level, Pagliacci’s can be seen as a neighborhood pizzeria, for the southern wing of the restaurant is just that, with its own door and counter – a place to drop in for a proper margherita. But head into the dining room, and you’ll find why the word “taverna” appears in the name.
And while you’re sipping on a nice, crisp Verdicchio, do order a plate of the mixed, deep-fried calamari and zucchini, served with a classic tomato sauce. The marinated grilled veggies with goat cheese go well with a glass of something grapish as well. But then, they go well with everything and anything, even if it’s just Pellegrino.
The menu, reassuringly, meanders through familiar fields – there’s a certain quality of coming home when you go to a restaurant where the food feels like old friends come to visit.
It’s easy to have forgotten the simple pleasure of an order of baked eggplant topped with melted parmesan, mozzarella and tomato sauce – a classic eggplant alla Parmigiana. (The Alfredo dishes, including a fine chicken Alfredo, are served these days as specials. They’re worth going for. But then, so is much at Pagliacci’s!)
There’s the basic joy of beef carpaccio topped with arugula, capers, parmesan and a lemon dressing – a flavor combination as basic to me as Proust’s madeleine cookie, a taste that reminds me of the discovery that food so simple could be transformed into food so good.
Salads abound, including a nifty Little Gem model that also includes arugula, crispy pancetta bacon, gorgonzola and cherry tomatoes – it’s a lot of salad with a lot of bang for the buck.
And there are plenty of choices of chicken, beef, lamb and seafood – more seafood than at most Italian restaurants, and definitely more than at most old-style Italian restaurants.
But, not unexpectedly, what defines the cooking at Pagliacci’s is the pasta, ranging from the plain goodness of spaghetti alla marinara, and lasagna alla Bolognese – to filling wonders like the pappardelle con “short ribs” (and, yes, that construction is more Italianish than Italian), and the risotto ai frutti di mare.
15001 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; 818-461-9020, www.toast-coffee.com
The warmly named Toast, a tiny café on a street corner in Sherman Oaks, isn’t just a restaurant, it’s an international gathering spot – a United Nations of sorts, with a very large menu, and abrupt service reminiscent of the many late-night cafes in Tel Aviv.
This is, as is often the case, a doorway into another world. It’s also a restaurant with a menu that’s a bit of many cuisines at once – Israeli at the center, but also very much in the middle of Sherman Oaks, where it sits just down the block from the cult breakfast destination Blu Jam Café.
It offers a lot of breakfast options, including a dish that I love far too well – the house versions of Middle Eastern favorite called shakshuka. It’s a dish that is originally Tunisian, giving the menu a North African edge as well.
Shakshuka is a wonderful thing – often served in large pans on hotel breakfast buffets. It’s a stew of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and more, on top of which eggs are cracked and poached in the heat of the dish below. There’s an addictive quality to the dish, made even better at Toast by the presence of not one, but two versions – one with a tomato sauce, the other with a green spinach, pesto and cilantro sauce, which makes an already great dish, if not greater, at least different.
If you’re not heading for local dishes, like the Baja Omelette and the New York Scramble, try the Middle Eastern pastry-based breakfasts – malawach and ziva, sounding like biblical kings, and packed with cheese and egg and olives and more.
As the day goes on, there’s a sabich sandwich (a handheld meal of pita and eggplant and hummus and egg), one of the great grab-and-go dishes of the world. There are pizzas made on crunchy lafa bread. And connecting back to the Tunisian roots of shakshuka, there’s a Tunisian sandwich as well, of spicy spread and egg (hard-cooked eggs are everywhere!) and tuna salad.
You could get penne pomodoro, Asian-style noodles with salmon, fish tacos, and a Caesar salad as well. But they don’t transport you the way so many of the other dishes do. I can get linguine in an Alfredo sauce in a lot of places, but not with green shakshuka at the same time.
18401 Sherman Way, Reseda; 818-757-1400, www.aurascafe.com
At the wildly eclectic Aura’s Cafe, and the adjacent natural foods store, you’ll find much information about how you should “change your water, change your life,” and the importance of hydrating and detoxifying with ionized alkaline water. Which is great, I’m all in favor of water.
But the water served at Aura’s isn’t near as tempting as the many juices and smoothies, available from the juice bar, where they crank out some of the best-tasting juices in this juice-obsessed town of ours. My juice of choice was the Popeye, delivered in a sizable carafe. It’s a very tasty mix of kale, apples, celery, lemon, cucumber, ginger and spinach. I would have been happy as well with the Liver Cleanse (beet, apple, carrot, orange and cilantro). Or the Perfect 7 (apple, beet carrot, ginger, lemon, cucumber and celery).
If desired, I could have added organic cayenne or activated charcoal for a few cents more. Cayenne maybe, charcoal not so maybe.
There’s much more to drink at Aura’s, including a world of smoothies with names like Creamy Mango, Strawberry Passion and Berry Tasty. But at Aura’s, one does more than knock back the bee pollen and almond milk. There’s a whole lot of unexpectedly tasty chow, including a big American burger. This place is full of surprises.
Perusing the menu, if you didn’t know there was a healthy quotient, you might not know that at all. The cooking is Central American inspired. Which means dishes like carne asada nachos, lomo saltado, fajitas and pollo tinga. But it’s so globally mixed, it’s hard to nail it down.
That Peruvian lomo saltado is close to a very American turkey club sandwich, just above Italian fettuccine Alfredo, adjacent to Baja style shrimp tacos. The pastrami sandwich is Jewish deli food.
But as globally madcap as the food here is, it’s well prepared, very tasty, and there’s lots of it. And you can have it with a spinach and yogurt smoothie. Fettuccine Alfredo with a smoothie? The mind, it boggles.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected].