Most Los Angeles restaurants have the shelf life of rock & roll bands — two to six years — so it’s an impressive and moving fact that Angeli Café on Melrose is coming up on its 20th birthday. Angeli was among the first of the new Italians, and chef Evan Kleiman’s clear-eyed, big-flavored, hearty rustic cooking, with its near-divine simplicity (pasta with butter and Parmesan), was an enormous influence and instigator in a city where a kind of Americanized northern Italian cooking would become, for several years, what we ate when we went out to eat. No one has been able to match Kleiman’s pizza crust or make bread quite as beautifully (hot, puffed-up, small rounds that are chewy, yeasty, with the perfect salt level). One restaurateur even bragged shamelessly about how he once hid in her kitchen at night to spy on her pizza chef as he prepared the dough.
Twenty years after opening Angeli, Kleiman, with her weekly radio show and her involvement in the local Slow Food Movement, remains one of our most articulate and influential chefs. And for two years now, Thursday nights have been family night at her restaurant. Starting at 7 p.m., the café’s tables are pushed into long rows, and food comes out of the kitchen on platters, family-style, to be passed among friends and strangers who have come to partake. The menu is typically ethnic — Angeli has done Mexican and Indian, tapas and Moroccan, Persian and Provençal, as well as classic Italian regional meals, providing both the kitchen staff and the clientele with enjoyable excursions into novelty. I had been meaning to get to a Thursday-night dinner for a while.
It was supposed to be South American food the night we arrived, but Kleiman was ferputz . . . or verpfuscht . . . or whatever that perfect Yiddish word is for “racing around madly before leaving the country.” It was too much for her to prepare arepas from scratch before taking eight people to Italy on one of her quarterly culinary tours. Instead, she decided to treat the dinner crowd to a classic Angeli menu. Around 7:30, five of us took our places around the long table. Kleiman’s mother sat with three friends on one side of us; a clearly-in-love couple flanked our other side — these were the people with whom we were to eat.
“Tonight I’m determined to pace myself,” declared one woman. Shortly, we understood her resolve: First came a pizza on that famously chewy crust (it has a kind of subtle intrinsic crunch that’s intensely pleasurable) topped with bits of caramelized roasted garlic, capers, tiny clouds of white goat cheese, each a different powerful flavor. Then came what is still the best calamari in town: Breaded, deep-fried and served with lots of lemon and a side of marinara, it’s crisp and light and so fundamentally good, it makes me wonder why the hundreds of other such platters around town don’t measure up. There were pauses between courses, then came plates of good prosciutto, creamy burrata, then bowls of small black mussels steamed open with plumped little black olives in the broth. Although we all cast jealous eyes as the plates were passed, nobody went hungry. The service moved smoothly; the waiters, practiced at this family-style serving, managed to keep everyone in wine, water, lemon wedges, whatever we needed.
After a dazzling parade of appetizers came individual bowls containing two kinds of pasta: one was a superb ricotta gnocchi, at once fluffy from the soft white cheese and crunchy with ground almonds; the other, a classic aglio e olio, was spaghetti tossed with pepper flakes, parsley and enough garlic to stun a vampire. By this point, those of us who hadn’t paced ourselves were already quite nicely fed. But nothing builds up an appetite like good food, and when the insalata forte, a garlic-spiked green salad, came to the table, we dug in anew. This was followed in short order by tagliata, thin grilled beef “scallops” on a bed of arugula, and the tenderest rosemary-garlic chicken imaginable.
Dinner concluded with a suitable classic: the perfect slab of tiramisù, a dessert that hundreds of cooks have tried to improve or improvise upon. Kleiman, as ever, kept close to the basics, reminding us that simplicity and authenticity are virtues worth cultivating. Leaving, we stopped to thank her for a great meal — however ferputz she may have felt, the dinner was splendid, invigorating and pleasantly nostalgic. (Upcoming Thursday-night dinners will feature the foods of Liguria, Paris and, yes, eventually South America.) We waited for a man to finish talking to Kleiman, and when he walked away, she smiled. “He wants me to do a Tyrolean menu.” She paused for a minute. “I guess that would be potatoes and at least five courses of dessert.”
Angeli Café, 7274 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 936-9086. Lunch Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Dinner daily, 5–10 p.m. Beer and wine. Valet parking. Thursday-night dinners $25, wine dinners $50. AE, D, MC, V.