When Porta Via opened some years back, it brought an interesting blend of Northern California innovation and authentic Italian ambiance to Cañon Drive in Beverly Hills. Co-owner Sandy Gendel had an impressive culinary pedigree: He‘d worked for Jonathan Waxman at Napa’s Table 29, put in some time at Chez Panisse, then come down to Los Angeles, where he went to work for Mauro Vincenti, who first put him in the kitchen at Rex, then sent him to Italy, where he spent two years working at Vissani in Umbria.
Returning to L.A., Gendel found a small storefront on Cañon and, with his good friend Peter Garland, opened Porta Via. It immediately distinguished itself with excellent pastas and baked goods: The rich, triangular scone, studded with currants and orange peel, was the best of its type. Lunch offered great fresh salads and sandwiches; pastas and rotisserie chickens were the staples of a lively takeout business. Shortly, Garland and Gendel were approached by Jon Sidel (who developed the Olive, Jones, Swingers) to reopen Dominick‘s, the once-legendary steakhouse on Beverly Boulevard next door to Jerry’s Famous Deli. The two friends spent a year and a half designing and building the space, but when Dominick‘s opened, it quickly became more of a bar scene than a bastion of fine dining -- a frustration to the partnership, which eventually devolved into a three-way split.
Garland, who presciently had bought out Gendel’s share of Porta Via, returned to run the small cafe, remodeling and enlarging it and, recently, opening it for dinner. In turn, Gendel, who was living in Laurel Canyon at the time, spotted a ”For Lease“ sign at the former Caioti space under the Canyon Market. Inquiries led to his opening a restaurant called Pace about a year ago. (Pace, pronounced pah-chay, is Italian for ”peace.“)
Somehow, the winner in all these maneuvers turns out to be the dining public, who now have two casual, moderately priced cafes where they can relax, eat unusually fresh, good food, and not spend a fortune.
Porta Via is still a tiny cafe -- the new indoor dining area seats a mere 27 people; more are accommodated outside on the sidewalk. During the day, there‘s a steady stream of women in gowns and shower caps with tin foil in their hair slipping out of Umberto’s next door for fat-free muffins, no-fat lattes. I‘ve returned again and again for the prosciutto sandwich or the grilled shrimp salad with fresh asparagus.
The appealing, simple dinner menu is complemented by an excellent small wine list. Salads are fresh and uniformly terrific: Try the juicy mache with blue cheese and tomato. Surely the chopped beet salad with garbanzo beans is one of the better ways to ingest multiple servings of vegetables.
Pastas are always good here; I have trouble ordering anything other than the wild-mushroom lasagna, with spinach and a light nutmeg-scented bechamel. My favorite entree is a tender, sticky-crisp, two-day marinated chicken with superb mashed potatoes. A salmon, however, proves muddy and disappointing. The quality of the produce is so markedly good, it’s tempting to make a meal of the side dishes: a big heap of beautiful al dente green beans with slivered almonds, say, and the house-cut French fries. For dessert, there are great ginger cookies, and the tasty (if oddly dry) pear sorbet goes splendidly with the rich chocolate layer cake.
Pace‘s cozy, subterranean space under the Canyon Market was once home to Caioti, where Ed LaDou made his famous idiosyncratic pizzas (not to mention a bitter-greens salad that developed a reputation for inducing labor). Here, Gendel set out focusing on pizzas; he developed a wonderful chewy sourdough crust with a kind of interior, addictive crunch, and a series of distinctive pies differentiated by mythic names. The Aphrodite Pie, for example, is a classic Genovese construction of potatoes, chopped green beans, pesto and fresh mozzarella. The Mystic Pie has wild mushrooms and a tangle of bitter greens, and the Electra has shrimp, red onion, light tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella.
Pace’s salads may not induce labor, but, like Porta Via‘s, they’re a testament to fresh produce. Try the chopped salad, a textural pleasure that‘s different from Porta Via’s, but every bit as juicy and compelling. Insalata alla romana, with arugula and crumbled feta, is topped with slippery and sublime sweet grilled onions. Pastas are homemade or the excellent dried Latini brand. The fettuccine alla bolognese has a rich, meaty veal sauce; the wonderfully toothsome arrabbiata could use a bit more spice.
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Dinners commence with complimentary toasted almonds and fabulous fat green wrinkly olives. Entree picks include a great plump planked salmon with crunchy risotto cakes and bitter al dente baby broccoli, and a hefty prime rib eye with a sweet-potato polenta. Skip the tiramisu for fruit crisp or a deep-chocolate flourless cake.
People are always calling me up and asking for places to take parents, or to meet friends halfway between the Westside and the Eastside, a place where they can have a long talk with a good friend over decent food, or a small informal birthday dinner with a group whose members can‘t afford a high-end bill. Add Porta Via and Pace to your list of such places.
Porta Via, 424 N. Cañon Dr., Beverly Hills; (310) 274-6534. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$60. AE, DC, MC, V. Recommended dishes: chopped beet salad, shrimp salad, pastas, marinated chicken, scones and baked goods.
Pace, 2100 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 654-8583. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$50. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Recommended dishes: insalata alla romana, chopped vegetable salad, pizzas, fettuccine alla bolognese, salmon, rib eye.