VINCENT SCHIAVELLI'S SUNKEN, DROWSY EYES, THIN FACE, NOTABLE nose and lanky stature are familiar from dozens of films and television shows One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ghost, Fast Times at Ridgemont High to name a paltry few. Starting last June, the character-actor-turned-chef/cookbook writer has been preparing regular Thursday-night dinners at Alto Palato, the refined Italian restaurant on La Cienega, emphasizing his philosophy that "the enjoyment of wholesome food is essential to the pursuit of happiness." That was reason enough to return to Alto Palato.
Schiavelli's interest in cooking dates back to his childhood when his grandfather, a master chef who'd worked for a Sicilian baron, subtly and deliberately gave him a complete cookery course at the dinner table. "I would be doing my homework on one end of the table, and my grandfather would be cooking at the other end," Schiavelli says. As a result, he cooked avidly most of his adult life and, as often happens with great home cooks, was urged by friends to write a cookbook. He did them one better and, combining recipes with essays and reminiscences, wrote Bruculinu, America: Remembrances of Sicilian-American Brooklyn, Told in Stories and Recipes. Having found his form, Schiavelli followed up with two more books, an homage to his grandfather, Papa Andrea's Sicilian Table: Recipes and Remembrances of My Grandfather, and his latest, published last month, Many Beautiful Things: Stories and Recipes From Polizzi Generosa, illustrated by Santo Lipani. Schiavelli is also involved in the Slow Food movement, and launched a Hollywood chapter; its first event took place at Alto Palato and spawned the Thursday-night dinners.
Over its eight years of existence, Alto Palato has slid on and off my list of favorite restaurants. Some of this waffling has to do with my own dining patterns, and some has to do with an unevenness in my experiences there. The salads, the pizza, the pasta and the gelato at Alto Palato are all reliably world-class; but the quality of service and entrées can fluctuate. It's usually after a pricey, not great meal with indifferent service that Alto Palato sinks to the background of my culinary memory. But my interest is eventually rekindled usually by an almost rude craving for the house-made hazelnut gelato.
SCHIAVELLI TOOK SOME TIME OFF recently to return to Sicily; but his Thursday nights started back up a few weeks ago, when his third book came out. When, last week, a friend and I returned to that high-ceilinged, modern room with its flourish of a staircase and ever-changing collection of contemporary art, we passed Schiavelli at the door; he was having a quick puff on his pipe outside. It happened that, along with Schiavelli's menu, Alto Palato had just introduced its new fall menu. We ate from both listings, matching each of Schiavelli's four courses with one of the restaurant's.
Schiavelli's dishes were all amply portioned but the satisfactions were perhaps somewhat intermittent (though well worth the $35). Stuffed mushrooms made from Papa Andrea's recipe launched us; the caps, mounded with a delicious mixture of sautéed stems, herbs, sharp pecorino and bread crumbs, had been baked earlier in the day and, while meant to be served tepid, were distractingly cold. Next came a very simple Sicilian version of aglio e olio, with garlic, olive oil, melted anchovies and crunchy toasted bread crumbs that was enlivened by a sprinkling of table salt. "I wanted to make the simplest pasta imaginable," Schiavelli told us later. (He claims to be "useless on the line" and spends the dinner hour visiting with customers.) "French chefs take an ingredient and ask what they can add to enhance it. But Italians ask, 'What can I take away to make it better?'"
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The third course was a compelling rapini (bitter broccoli) stew with a fresh pork sausage (handmade by Domingo's Italian Grocery in Encino) whose virtues were not as clear to us as they were to Schiavelli they seemed like skinny, boiled lengths of underseasoned, bouncy ground pork. Schiavelli took no credit for the dessert, a slice of pleasantly unsweet ricotta cheesecake that I suspect was commercially made, served with and redeemed by a scoop of insanely good house-made cherry gelato.
In the meantime, we'd also been eating food from Fredy Escobar, Alto Palato's chef. The deep-fried artichokes on baby greens, an old favorite, was as wonderful as we recalled. The artichokes were like crisped flowers with soft, moist hearts. But the showstopper and hands-down best dish of the night and possibly one of the five best pasta dishes in all of Los Angeles was a house-made, ribbony, papardelle with sautéed porcini mushrooms. The mushrooms were slippery and strong in that prized, almost rank porcini way, amped with a bit of Parmesan and parsley, nothing more real proof that simplicity fosters sublimeness. There are three new "authentic" dishes: tripe stew, veal kidney, and liver and onions. We tried the tripe, which serves as a kind of slick, chewy vehicle for a rich, meaty ragu. Another stew, made of lamb and finished with thin string beans, had an unabashed, almost gamy flavor, perfect for cold autumn nights but it came on too-finely-sieved mashed potatoes, a textural gaffe. The hazelnut, pistachio, cherry and chocolate gelati are still the best ice creams in all of Los Angeles.
While Alto Palato's surprises and delights are often balanced by less interesting moments, the restaurant can never be accused of inertia. (There are also regional dinners every Wednesday night three courses for $25 with Italian wines by the bottle discounted 40 percent.) For now, it's back on my shortlist of favorites thanks largely to two words: porcini pasta.
Alto Palato, 755 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 657-9271. Open for dinner Mon.-Thurs. 6-10:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 6-11 p.m., and Sun. 6-10:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V. Entrées $18-$25.