The chilly Wednesday evening before Angeli Caffe closed for good, you could grab a bar seat at Pizzeria Mozza without waiting, and there were only two or three dudes in line at Pink's hot dog stand. If you were ambling down Melrose on your way to a bite or a drink, you could have had your choice of any table at any restaurant on the usually crowded strip.
But Angeli was really crowded, astonishingly crowded, with people there to wish the restaurant well — longtime customers, mostly, some of them with college-age kids who had been going to Angeli since infancy: patting out floury balls of pizza dough as toddlers, graduating to roast chicken as children, perhaps having their first dates there as teens, knowing the mashed-potato croquettes and the gnocchi with brown butter and sage would never let them down.
Laura Avery from the Santa Monica Farmers Market was there, and food activist Susan Haymer, and a couple dozen other people I knew, or thought I knew from my years of going to the restaurant, and Evan Kleiman seemed to be at every table at once, dispensing hugs like aspirin tablets, consoling her customers on a day when she may have needed mothering most of all. Her caffe had been chugging since the end of 1984, long enough to see its brand of rustic, lusty Italian food seem avant garde, modish, popular, everyday, fusty and popular again, although the cooking, oddly enough, remained exactly the same.
In central Italy, where Kleiman's food was firmly rooted, the most beloved trattorias and caffes often remain consistent over several generations, unchanging menus and unchanging clientele a sign of vitality rather than of stagnation. Their cooking tastes of the landscape, of the city, of home. In Rome, there would be riots if Perilli strayed from its menu of carbonara, amatriciana and pajata, and the appearances of artichokes and puntarelle are as regular as the cycles of the sun. The brilliance of a trattoria chef lies not in her creative riffs on the classics but in the purity and constancy of her interpretation.
The quiet consistency of Angeli's suppli, spaghetti alla checca and tagliata de manzo was exactly what Los Angeles needed during a run that stretched from the Spago era through kiwi sauces to the nose-to-tail epoch. There were periods of regional Thursday-night feasts, Slow Food dinners and street-food nights at Angeli, and the ingredients got better, but it remained the place you came back to after the latest flirtation with molecular cuisine, or neo-Polynesian fusion, or fried pigs' ears had run its course.
Kleiman, of course, has figured in Los Angeles cooking for as long as anyone can remember, from long-defunct restaurants like Mangia and Verdi, to Angeli Caffe, to the years when her empire extended to Angeli Trattoria in West Los Angeles, the fish restaurant Angeli Mare in Marina del Rey and yet a fourth Angeli in an odd shopping complex on Rodeo Drive. The casual-Italian cookbooks she co-wrote with Viana La Place, Cucina Fresca, Pasta Fresca and Cucina Rustica, were among the most influential of the 1980s, especially among caterers, and it still is not unusual to walk into a gourmet to-go place and see a dozen of her creations in the deli case.
She helped start Chefs Collaborative and Slow Food in Los Angeles (although she is currently involved in neither), she instituted annual pie-baking contests, she is involved with the City of Los Angeles' Food Task Force and she has hosted the Good Food show on KCRW since time immemorial. (Conflict-of-interest alert? I have talked about restaurants on Good Food for more than 15 years.)
There are few people who could be said to be the face of food in Los Angeles. Kleiman is certainly one of them.
Still, it is a hard thing to keep a restaurant going in Los Angeles, even for someone as driven as Kleiman, and in the last half-dozen years business apparently had dwindled to something just below break-even: not enough to sustain the overhead and the employees, some of whom had worked at the restaurant since it started. Privately, she anguished over the future of Angeli — maybe the employees could buy her out, she thought. Maybe an angel would appear. Maybe a scientist would announce that eggplant fritters were the cure for Alzheimer's.
But even the best restaurants sometimes come to an end, and for Angeli's raucous last three weeks at least, it was a happy one. I had a last plate of gnocchi, a last pizza with artichokes, a last tagliata with arugula and slipped out, slightly drunk, into the night.