Many of us who write about food hear the plea: "Please don't write about [insert favorite restaurant/bakery/seller of obscure charcuterie here]. They are crowded enough." They point to places like Eatalian Café, in the Harbor Gateway area of Gardena, that, after well-deserved praise in publications including L.A. Times and Westways, became jam-packed with patrons drawn in by their made on-site fresh pasta dishes and brick oven pizzas. What most didn't realize was that Eatalian Café's owner Antonio Pellini had another, much smaller, Eatalian Café on the western edge of Gardena that he closed to focus on getting things to run smoothly in increasingly popular eastern location.
Having been to the larger Eatalian Café location recently, we are pleased to confirm that Pellini's calculation has paid off. Although the house is still packed on most nights, the service is friendly and efficient. And as of November of last year, Pellini decided to re-open the west Eatalian Café location under the leadership of the former pizzaiolo of the larger location, Davide Molinari, and his wife Victoria Vaughn. We decided to explore the relaunched menu, which has both familiar and new dishes, to see if this location has been able to transport the big Italian flavors into the smaller location.
"We wanted to create a straight to the point Italian place," Vaughn explained as she acknowledged the crowds that still flock to the larger location and difference between the two, "But some people only have an hour, half an hour for lunch and now they can come here." And already tables are filling up with the workers in the area, from firefighters next to rocket scientists.
They source many of their ingredients from the larger location: the pizza and bread doughs, fresh pasta and gelato are delivered daily. However, these efficiencies and the drive for quicker service have not come at the cost of craftsmanship. Molinari is from Modena, which in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy. He explained to us that this region is home to balsamic vinegar, parmigiano reggiano and prosciutto di parma in addition to the name plates of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Ducati.
Although the printed menu seemingly omits the fresh pasta dishes from this location, they almost always have a pasta special available. Recently it was lasagna with layers of ragù and béchamel topped with fresh mozzarella and served in a dish of their housemade marinara. The lasanga is finished seconds before hitting the table, placed in the pizza oven for just enough time that the mozzarella smothers the top of the entire piece of lasagna but doesn't dissolve into it completely.
Like most lasagnas made with fresh noodles, it is missing that slight bite of an al dente pasta. However, since the sheets are all give, they actually envelop the substantial fillings. The ragù is studded with big chunks of Italian sausage, but cooked so well it has almost the same silky texture as the béchamel. The béchamel itself does not weigh the dish down; instead there is just enough to hold it all together. Along with the extremely bright and fresh tasting marinara, what is usually a heavy dish turns out to be delicate in both flavor and texture.
Of course the number one reason we were drawn to this location out was to check out the pizzas. While they serve the already well known Eatalian pizzas like Pizman (speck, gorgonzola and porcini mushrooms) and traditional pies like Romana (mozzarella, anchovies, oregano), at nearly every visit we have ordered their own signature pizza, the 46 with the toppings of fresh mozzarella, arugula, prosciutto di Parma and finished with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
The 46 is named in honor of a record breaking Italian motorcycle racer -- and the pizza also hits the table in seemingly record time. The mozzarella is melted almost completely into the thin pizza sauce, made from crushed tomatoes infused with the essence of a good olive oil. The prosciutto is shaved thin and almost dissolves at those points where it touches the crust and infuses It with its deep pork flavor. The arugula, just barely wilted and with droplets of balsamic on top, adds the crucial counterpoints to the richness and saltiness of the sauce, cheese and prosciutto.
However, as always, it is the crust that makes the pizza. Eatalian's paper-thin crust looks crackery, but it has a rather complex structure. The interior is bouncy with a barely there layer of dense crumb. This allows it to hold up under the toppings so that the pizza doesn't turn into a soggy mess. These same micro air bubbles, and the minimal char from the brick oven, turn the bottom into a crisp matrix of support so that we were able do a perfect fold and hold with each slice. Before knew it, we are left with an empty pizza pan.