My Three Sons 

Wednesday, Mar 7 2001

Let me introduce my three boys, Antonio, Giuseppe and Johnny Stifano. Actually, they‘re not my boys in any sense of the phrase, as I am not their mother, nor are they in love with me. And yet, dining as I have these past few months at Michelangelo, I have developed affection for these pups, and for their homey Silver Lake restaurant.

Though I almost didn’t. In its former incarnation, Michelangelo was just a pizzeria with greasy plastic tables. But after five friends who live in the area told me, ”It‘s changed, it’s great, it‘s owned by this woman and her three adorable sons,“ how could I not stop in again?

Ducking out of a sleet storm for dinner, we find ourselves in a small, toasty room painted in mellow tones of umber and sea blue. There’s Brazilian music playing, and the place bubbles with the voices of customers and the energy of two 20-ish boys working the floor, who, with their baseball caps and slouchy pants, look more as though they should be snowboarding or playing Duke Nukem. A third ducks his head in from the kitchen, speaking Italian to matriarch Domenica, who stands in a little alcove used for uncorking a small but good selection of wines, for frothing cappuccino, and as a social hub for the family. Above Mama hang childhood photos of her boys, each face SWAKed with a red kiss sticker.

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The simple menu -- starters, sandwiches, pizza, pasta and chicken -- nevertheless offers many tantalizing choices: penne alla arrabiata, pollo Marsala, a pizza Napolitana, with anchovies and capers. To complicate matters, Antonio tells us there are eight specials, including snapper cooked with vodka and shrimp, beef fillet with funghi, carrot soup, and spaghetti and meatballs. How to choose?

A starter of crunchy calamari has a peppery crumb, and is served with a bright, chunky tomato sauce that‘s hot with garlic. Salad Michelangelo, a pyramid of greens with fresh mozzarella, is underdressed (as are all the salads; add a little of the oregano-flecked vinaigrette they bring with the bread), but the scattering of 10-inch strands of carrot, straight from the peeler, gives me the key to understanding why the food at Michelangelo is making me giddy: It’s prepared by young men, the way young men like it -- unfussy, filling, a little blunt but fine nonetheless.

”We all cook,“ Antonio tells me, plunking down a big dish of homemade ravioli radicchio, the dough wrappers so thin and tender they‘re translucent, showing deeply verdant centers of spinach and ricotta; doused in butter and cheese and flicked with ribbons of radicchio, they’re divine. A side of sauteed spinach tastes of good olive oil and lemon I know is fresh because of the pits. My boyfriend eats a perfectly cooked, slightly nutty mushroom risotto, bathed in an ineffable reduction of butter and heavy cream that‘s so decadent I begin to feel drowsy.

I perk up for tiramisu. It’s a giant slab, a little too cold, a little sugary, but hitting all the right notes of mascarpone, espresso and a sifting of cocoa. Halfway through, I ask for the check.

”No, no, no,“ says Johnny. ”You ‘ave to finish your dessert.“

I tell him I can’t. He crosses his arms and gives me a mock-scolding. ”Yes, you can. Come on, one more bite.“

I eat it, probably because I find this so funny. When was the last time a waiter teased me into finishing my food?

A week later, despite a soft rain outside, Michelangelo is doing a brisk lunch business, even at the outdoor cafe tables. Again, we can‘t decide.

”We ’ave just made the gnocchi,“ says Andres Simone, a tousle-haired cousin of the Stifanos, who tells me he and his family are actually from Venezuela, ”but we are Italian, by blood, it‘s what we cook.“

The tiny potato gnocchi are the size and color of bay scallops, chewy yet not too, nicely laced with a slightly grainy pesto (they’re also offered with the wonderful funghicreambutter reduction, a better choice). There‘s a special soup every day, plus Mama’s minestrone and pasta e fagioli; today‘s broccoli soup is a vibrant hue, but, unfortunately, does not taste like anything more than broccoli until dusted with grated Parmesan. Better is the penne scampi, with a lusty tomato tang and a dozen prettily curled shrimp, bronzed and garlicky. Pizza margarita has a wonderfully thin crust, just the right amount of rich tomato sauce and melting mozzarella, and tiny tendrils of fresh basil.

Michelangelo’s food is the essence of home cooking, and as such, it has its missteps: The bread isn‘t great; the thick shavings of cheese atop the insalata alla Cesare are bland and rubbery; and I don’t know how the boys manage to make a flavorless pollo parmigiana. And yet there‘s also an interesting Nonna Filomena, a buttery tart with a cool lemon filling studded with pine nuts, and a not-too-rich chocolate tart that tastes like chocolate milk.

When we’re done, Andres and Johnny walk us to the door, hold it open and, amid a chorus of ”Thank you, thank you, ciao, ciao,“ tell us to come back soon.

”You just like to come here to look at the boys,“ my boyfriend teases me. Well, yes, but I also like the ravioli.

1637 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 660-4843. Open Mon.--Fri. for lunch and dinner; Sat. for breakfast, lunch and dinner; closed Sun. Beer and wine. MC, V.

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