Our Way or the Autostrade
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Terroni: No Substitutions, Southern Italian–Style."
If I were associated with Terroni, I'd probably be getting pretty mad about now. Because while the restaurants older locations are famous in its native Toronto for their no-substitutions policy, the privations forced upon customers by the Hollywood office go barely noticed among the flood of sashimi nazis and noodle nazis, hamburger nazis and rice-bowl nazis, the media-trained boy-food guys who refuse modifications to their fare, no matter how trivial, or to the ramen czars who see Bolshevik red when somebody even suggests getting her food to go.
The Italian restaurant may refuse to flavor its olive oil, to allow Parmesan to be sprinkled on its linguine alle vongole, or to cut its pizza into wedges no matter how sorrowfully you beg, but in a city where chefs constantly innovate new and better ways to deprive their customers of what they want, Terroni's refusal to allow balsamic vinegar to touch its insalata Caprese barely rates a yawn. Ban spicy tuna rolls or ketchup on french fries, and you've got a story on your hands. Force a 25-year-old man to cut his pizza with a steak knife, and not even Yelp finds it significant. In Italy, the menu informs you, this is the way it's done. In L.A., we've learned to eat Ethiopian stews with injera, to tear basil leaves into pho, and order sushi at the kind of restaurants where the mention of a California roll sends the guy with the knife into a murderous rage. Uncut pizza; we can roll.
Terroni, of course, is the Southern Italian restaurant in the old Authentic Café space down the block from CBS, a place whose Euro-modern look extends to battered, mid-century tables, Edison bulbs and can-stuffed shelves taking the place of paintings or photographic displays. You can see the cooks in the open kitchen, stretching pizza paper-thin over the lip of the counter before tossing the pies into a big deck oven, arranging salads, but unrushed even at dinnertime, moving with Italian nonchalance.
It may actually feel more Italian than anywhere else in Los Angeles at the moment. There are terra-cotta serving dishes, decent Italian wines available in half-liter and quarter-liter carafes, and the deftest espresso pull this side of Genova. Waiters move at their own pace: It's probably not a good place to dash into if you care about making it to the movie on time. The music is annoying in precisely the way Italian radio is annoying — think KIIS-FM circa 1992 — and where the kitchen kind of bites (canned tuna in salads; a folded pizza called ciccio, which may remind you of the lesser stands at Pugliese beach resorts), it does so with strictly Italian flair. Terroni is one of the few restaurants in Los Angeles where you actually hear Italian spoken by both customers and cooks, not all of them drawn by the foosball game positioned near the door, and it is a shame that there is no television: It would be a perfect place to fortify yourself with grappa-spiked espresso and watch the Azzurri make their World Cup run this month.
Terroni had the misfortune, I think, of popping up within a few months of the opening of Pizzeria Mozza, whose own pizza became the obsession of Internet debate instead of Terroni's superthin-crusted pies, and whose puffy, burnt, wood-oven crusts became the object of purist derision and food-press glee. If Terroni had opened a couple years earlier, we all would be arguing about the merits of stretching dough and the necessity of serving pizzas whole, figuring out how to pronounce dialect terms like c't mang and scattagengive, and figuring out how to persuade the establishment to let us add arugula to our pies.
Terroni's pastas are often made with fresh, house-made versions of familiar dried pasta, an occasionally lovable tic, and are often very good: rigatoni with tomatoes and mozzarella; a definitive penne alla Norma with fried eggplant; and possibly the first L.A. appearance of spaghetti ca'muddica, a Sicilian pasta a little like spaghetti alla puttanesca enriched with toasted bread crumbs. I tend to prefer southern dishes made with honest, dried pasta, whose texture is more congenial to the strong vegetable-based sauces of the region than the claylike bite typical of fresh, thin pasta, and the version of the Roman bucatini all'Amatriciana, with clots of tomato and pancetta is pretty bad here, but Terroni's pasta, especially the pastas made with seafood, isn't bad. I've been going to Terroni off and on since it opened, usually happily, usually with big groups of friends, but what made me start taking the restaurant seriously again was one of the pasta specials: a simple dish of spaghetti tossed with sliced zucchini, tiny fava beans and mint, a delicious expression of late spring.
But Terroni specializes in pizzas — skinny, crunchy most of the way through, topped with things like broccoli rabe and crumbled sausage; Gorgonzola, honey and walnuts; or plain old mozzarella and tomato sauce. The no-substitutions policy applies, even in the baroque combinations of pizza toppings designed to appeal to 16-year-old Vespa jocks.
The strangest thing about Terroni may be the restaurant's name, a pejorative term for Southern Italians, slung mostly by hooligans in the north, a rough word meaning "peasant," which I've mostly heard directed at Napoli soccer players by ultras in Bergamo and Milan.
Not, mind you, during the World Cup.
TERRONI: 7605 Beverly Blvd., L.A. (323) 954-0300, terroni.ca. Open Sun.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-11 p.m; Fri-Sat., 9 a.m.-mid. AE, MC, V. Full bar. Valet parking. Antipasti, $12-$18; salads, $7-$15; pastas $15-$18; pizzas, $12-$17.
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