Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Red sauce joint

In L.A., it's hard to escape the knowledge that you're in...well, Los Angeles. Although there are some parts of L.A. with unique character, they all share a similar terrain or streetscape.

But there's one little hidden pocket of west L.A. along the coast that makes me feel like I'm no longer in Los Angeles, or even California, but instead I feel like I'm in a little beach town on the Eastern seaboard.

To get to the little community of Playa del Rey you have to drive all the way out to the end of Culver Blvd. through the Ballona wetlands. Westward from the 405, you travel through the huge new housing development, and then cross Lincoln Blvd. into a sea of grass, at the mouth of the Los Angeles River.

There's a little commercial strip with shops, liquor stores, and a few restaurants, and beyond that the narrow seaside streets and alleys are lined with apartment houses and bungalows. The sidewalks are drifted with sand that blows from the nearby beach.

One little restaurant, wedged into a tiny triangular block, is Cantalini's Salerno Beach Italian restaurant. Cantalini's is a white, green and red painted building, with a bar and a narrow dining room.

When I was a teenager, living in a seaside town in New Jersey, my family used to eat in little red-sauce joints like this. The road ran along the barrier island between Long Branch and Sandy Hook, and the bars and restaurants faced a great stone breakwater, the waves crashing behind it. Or they were perched pier-side in Atlantic Highlands, by the docks where the fish market sold cull lobsters for cheap. They were dark, with red-checkered table cloths, and candles of glimmering red glass.

At Cantalini's, the interior is lined with romantic little candle-lit booths, and the walls are painted with murals of Italian scenes. A trio of musicians play traditional songs. The waiters bring a carafe of house red wine.

Everybody's friendly here. The hostess and the bartender trade smart remarks. The waitstaff sings "Happy Birthday" to guests. Regular patrons leaving after a meal stop by the window to the kitchen and holler goodbye to the cooks. Families with kids come in and take their regular booth.

The eggplant parmigiana is legendary. The scampi is to die for.

When you're done eating have a cannoli for desert and then stroll out to the beach. And imagine you're on the Jersey Shore...Cue Frankie Valli....


Vallen said...

We have one, here - Frankie, Johnny and Luigi's Too. Been there forever. Ued to be the Knights of Columbus (and who knows who else) used to meet upstairs. There are hand-drawn caricatures of visiting celebs fighting for space on the wall. The eggplant is divine and there's a rigatoni in steak and gorgonzola sauce that's off the charts. I love these lovely old places!!!
Not Italian, but equally charming if it's still there, is the Pantry that's in downtown. The grouchy old waiters and the fresh sour dough. - Heaven!!!

Keetha said...

That sounds lovely - so picturesque and unL.A.-like!