Italians are like rabbits. Well, not in the sense they reproduce in droves – Italy, after all, has the lowest birth rate in Europe – but because when you meet one, you are bound to meet another thousand through a chain reaction. I even found one on a remote island in the Galapagos who made my travelling companion and I hand-made fettuccine on the slopes of his garden overlooking the ocean. But I am digressing. I managed to live in LA for 15 years without bumping into a single Italian and now I am surrounded. And it was through a friend of a friend that I heard about Eatalian Cafe, an eatery that opened in Gardena less than a year ago.
Do not be deterred by the address and/or the industrial location you will land into. The extremely busy parking lot in the back will give away to the deserved popularity of the place. Entering from the back door, you will find yourself in a former gigantic warehouse with cement floors that probably housed, in a previous incarnation, a tire lot or something as “unculinary” as that. At 12:30 on a Monday the atmosphere is slightly chaotic and it takes a moment to orient yourself. Around the edges of the wide open space, behind glass walls, immaculate workers are busy with all kinds of machinery, making pasta, gelato, bread. On one end is a brick oven manned by a pizzaiolo, two different counters sell gelato and bread and pastries. In the middle, all the tables are packed with diners and waiters run back and forth like crazy ants. At the lone cash register, we are asked to wait until a table frees up (the alternative is to eat at the pizza counter, also nearly full). I am glad we came early. By the time we leave an hour later, the waiting line has swelled up to a dozen people.
Antonio Pellini, a jovial restaurateur, is the fulcrum of this unexpected gem. He is also running around, clutching a bread basket and entertaining the half a dozen or so Italians who have discovered this marvel and keep on coming back. Antonio heads from a tiny village in Emilia (where else? bragging rights here) where he made food for nearly 20 years before coming to LA with the idea of making and distributing real Italian staples such as bread, gelato and mozzarella. While still trying to find his commercial bearings he thought the space that was only supposed to function as a factory and a warehouse lent itself to welcoming diners. And I am glad he did.
I am hard, let’s say impossible, to please when it comes to Italian food. So far, only Mario Batali has impressed me with the authenticity of his food. But the pizza at Eataly is the only one that comes close to what I eat when I go home. The crust is Roman style, paper-thin, charred at the edges – the enormous pizza that comes to the table is not hard to finish. The mozzarella is good quality and the tomato sauce is sweet and unhindered of too much garlic and other spices.
The complimentary bread basket is filled with fluffy and airy sliced rolls, just like the ones you would find at any Italian bakery. All the pastas are handmade, from tagliatelle to gnocchi and everything is as it would be where Antonio comes from. No shortcuts. The only concession to American patrons are the entrée size salads and the panini. And the prices are super reasonable.
The gelato is also pitch perfect, with maybe a couple dozen flavors to choose from, many of them quintessentially Italian. But the servers will encourage you to walk over to the counter and sample them before ordering. On our way out, I can’t resist filling a box with some canoli (puff pastry cones filled with either vanilla or chocolate cream), bigne’ ( essentially a cream puff) and an Italian croissant filled with apricot jam.
If you don’t live anywhere near the industrial part of Gardena – and who does? – I still encourage you to make the trek. It’s authentic food you will find in a down to earth but stylish atmosphere – and a lot of Italians you should talk to at your own risk…
Gardena Tel 310 532 8880