Imagine your first trip to Italy, the stumbling journey through the airport, the long train ride into Rome, the jet-lagged taxi ride to your hotel. After a quick shower, you realize that the lunch hour is drawing to a close, so you walk a block or two in any direction and settle into a random trattoria; it really doesn’t matter which one. The wine is white, sweetish and slightly fizzy — you weren’t really given a wine list, it more or less appeared — and the bread is milder, yet more profoundly wheaty, than any bread you remember having tasted. The prosciutto — it’s like you’ve never tasted ham before; what an aroma!
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And when the pasta comes — lemon linguine, penne carbonara, spaghetti with clams — the flavors are clear, sharp, almost animal, and Rome’s golden afternoon light looks as if it is generated from within. That is the moment of clarity we are looking for in Italian restaurants, and some of us will do almost anything to experience it again.
According to a recent survey, there are 568,000 Italians in the Los Angeles area, making it the fifth-largest Italian community in the United States, ahead of San Francisco, St. Louis and other cities far better known for their thriving Italian neighborhoods. Before Prohibition, Italian winemakers made Southern California the most prolific wine-growing area in the world. Yet there hasn’t really been a Little Italy in Los Angeles since Chinatown displaced it in the ’30s, and there is no suburb as uniquely Italian as, say, Monterey Park is Chinese.
If you were looking for California Italian food in its original form, you could drive up to Bakersfield, where Luigi’s, not far from the old train station, still maintains its century-old menu in a fragrant old dining room decorated with team photographs of Bakersfield high school football teams, a place where your lunch choices basically come down to pasta, beans, or pasta with beans. In the Port of Los Angeles, Canetti’s, gorgeous in its plainness, is the last of the old Italian restaurants that fed the once-substantial San Pedro fishing fleet, although unless you come for the mackerel and pasta fazool it serves on Friday evenings, the only Italian thing you’re going to find on the menu is the sausage you can get with your scrambled eggs in the morning.
In Chicago and New York, the fanciest restaurants tended to be French; here, they could be Scandinavian, Belgian, Italian — or even be famous for their fried chicken. The old Chianti on Melrose may have been the first luxury Italian restaurant in America when it was founded 70 years ago by Romeo Salta, who went on to open the first high-end ristorante in Manhattan. Perino’s, the swankest restaurant of old Hollywood, was Italian. Rex was the grandest restaurant Los Angeles has ever seen. Italian dining in Los Angeles has always been a fantasy, a triumph of self-invention. And that’s just the way we like it.