Reprinted from “Los Angeles City Beat”
Issue No. 127 - Published: 11/10/2005

Homemade Harmony
Giovanni's Italian cooking satisfies even the most divided dinner parties

By Richard Foss

Two of my dearest friends disagree on just about everything, but in an amiable way. They're generally courteous and polite about it, and I approach their company with the certainty of hearing different points of view argued intelligently. Except when the subject is dinner. One will suggest Chinese, the other will express dismay and propose steak. Battle will be joined with a mention of sushi, countered immediately with a preference for French. At that point, I generally decree that we're going for something else altogether, before they have objected to every cuisine on Earth.

I was driving down Venice Boulevard with this contentious pair, who were bickering as usual, when I spotted a sign for Giovanni's Trattoria. I pulled into the parking lot and announced that we were having Italian this evening, fervently hoping that the gods were smiling and the place would be better than one might expect from a location in the corner of a minimall. A slightly faded review from Bon Appetit gave us hope, and we studied the menu in an optimistic frame of mind. It was a simple list of southern Italian favorites, with a few more ambitious specials on the chalkboard nearby.

Owner Giovanni Prinzo came out to explain the specials and suggest items to suit our tastes, and with his help we selected starters of chicken-barley soup ($4.95), Fagottini di Melanzane ($5.50), and a Caesar salad ($5.50). Giovanni had mentioned that all his soups and sauces are homemade daily, and the soup certainly showed it - the stock was thick and rich, tasting of the essence of chicken, with mild spices modifying the flavor rather than dominating. There were plenty of vegetables and only a bit of barley, enough to lend a hint of nuttiness and substance. I had noticed the motto on the menu that stated "Italian Home Cooking," and it gained more credibility after the first taste of soup.

While I've had and made plenty of home-cooked soup, I have only had Faggottini di Melanzane in restaurants - it seems like an involved dish to make for a few people. It's just a mixture of cheeses and herbs with thinly sliced eggplant, topped with sauce, and broiled to just the right texture. Done right, it's wonderful; done wrong, inedible. This one was quite good, the slight bitterness of the eggplant nicely balanced with fruity marinara and rich cheese and pine nuts. I disliked eggplant the first few times I had it, because it took over every dish; if I meet someone now with the same dislike, I know where to send them to be properly introduced.

For main courses, we selected chicken ravioli "picante"($9.95), penne pomodoro ($8.95), and a daily special of orange roughy in a lemon-caper sauce with potatoes and vegetables ($13.95). Both pastas were accented with a light topping of very fresh tomato-based sauce with a mere hint of garlic and herbs. The Bickering Pair were divided on its merits, one appreciating the way the vegetable and herb flavors were expressed, the other desiring something more robust. I was in the middle, finding it a bit bland when served with the penne pasta alone, but nicely balanced with the fresh ravioli. Those ravioli weren't really that picante at all; there was just a hint of peppery flavor to enliven the blend of finely chopped chicken and cheese.

The orange roughy had been pan-roasted and topped with a simple but wonderfully tangy sauce that balanced the tartness of lemon and capers with a hint of sweetness. It wasn't a shatteringly original idea, but it was perfectly executed, which is the trademark of this kitchen. The potatoes were roasted so that the tops were crisp, the interiors moist, and the vegetables were done just tender, with plenty of flavor.

After a dinner of fine home cooking, we were surprised by desserts that were worthy of a fine bakery. They were out of the house-special tiramisu, but I didn't mind at all when I tried the excellent torta alla nonna. The "grandmother cake" was a lemony ricotta tart laced with chocolate chips and pine nuts, served in a marvelously flaky pastry. This is a dessert that any restaurant in Los Angeles might be proud to serve, and I'll go well out of my way to have it again.

The wine list at Giovanni's is nonexistent; the place doesn't serve alcohol but allows you to bring your own for a modest corkage. We didn't know, so we made do with sodas and tea. We'll bring a bottle of something rustic and comforting on our return, the kind of wine Italians enjoy with this sort of very good home cooking.