Italian Nice

I grew up in a condiment-free household. It's sad, but true. Our house was in a salad-dressing-free zone. Sauces were used only if they were imperative to the construction of a dish, and even then, sometimes not. Mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, barbecue sauce or salsa on our food? Never. Even spices were banned; any family member caught sneaking onion, garlic or anything stronger than Bob's Seasoning Salt was ostracized.

I don't know why this was. We never discussed it. It was just one of those quiet shames we kept hidden from the neighbors.

I was 15 before I was brave enough to add ranch dressing to my lettuce. Soon I became a monster. I topped burgers with Heinz, turkey sandwiches with Hellmann's, hot dogs with Dijon, steak with Worcestershire. Sometimes I even used pickles.

Ninetta's Trattoria makes its pasta fresh.
Leah Fasten
Ninetta's Trattoria makes its pasta fresh.

Details

Appetizers:

Pasta e fagioli$4.00

Insalata julien$6.50

Entrees:

Cannelloni Firenze$9.00

Linguini profumo di bosco$10.00

Osso buco$13.50

Dessert:

Tiramisu$3.00

One day, I broke loose completely and ordered Mexican food. I still remember it fondly: my first beef burrito (just shredded; I wasn't quite ready for green or red chiles yet), glistening under a mantle of enchilada sauce, swimming with sour cream, guacamole and salsa. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and dove in. God, it was good.

I'm proud to say that today, my family embraces condiments of all kinds and actually seeks out gutsy spicing. Like my blossoming, it happened suddenly for them, too. We still don't discuss it, but recently, I was shocked to discover that my mother has a half-dozen types of salt in her pantry. Salt!

Yet I have to admit, when I first opened her cupboard and found her secret spice stash, I felt like something had been lost. Even if it was for the better, my life had changed.

Perhaps that's why I feel so content at Ninetta's Trattoria, a cozy, family-run restaurant just north of Moon Valley. The menu is uncontrived, the presentation is uncomplicated and there's little use of assertive seasoning. It harks back to my childhood, which, despite the bland flavoring, was a very happy time.

Simple goodness is his goal, acknowledges owner Alessandro Raffi as he stops by our table to check on us one evening. Earlier in his cooking career, he tells us in his stilted English, he ran two high-end Italian restaurants in Germany featuring tableside preparation of some two dozen intricate dishes. When he and his wife opened Ninetta's a little more than a year ago, however, they decided to concentrate on traditional, comfortable meals from their native Tuscany. She does the cooking, he runs the business and their nephew waits on the tables.

If you're looking for risotto with wild mushroom ragout and truffle oil, go to La Locanda. If you're looking for chicken Parmigiana or spaghetti and meatballs, go to the Olive Garden. But if you seek honest, tasty spaghetti alle vongole (clams, parsley, garlic and white wine) or genuine trenette al pesto (basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, Pecorino and Parmesan cheeses), Ninetta's will do you proud. Best of all, there's nothing priced more than $13.50.

Sure, not everything on the menu works, but if you stick to Ninetta's specialty -- pasta -- you're bound to leave satisfied.

The first thing that doesn't work is the seating -- achingly straight-backed chairs with harsh woven-reed mats. Ouch. Good thing the mint-colored walls and linen tab-top drapes are so soothing, splashed with copper sconces and a few wall-mounted dry pasta displays. Elevator-style piano music in the background calms, too, particularly when Raffi bursts into impromptu Italian opera.

The first thing that does work, though, is the water service. We live in the middle of the desert, but how often do I have to plead for a meager glass of H2O in so many restaurants? Raffi brings us an entire iced pitcher, even topping it off midway through our meals. For that alone, I like Ninetta's.

Bread is also better than it needs to be at such a small place. It's homemade Tuscan style, sourdough-toned with a great thick crust. But why is margarine served alongside, when real dairy butter is easy elegance?

In a return to the familiar Italian menus I grew up with, many dishes come with insalatina, a basic toss of romaine, tomato, sliced raw onion (gack) and shredded carrot in a light vinaigrette. It's okay when it's free, and even with the salad's à la carte price of just $1.50, but the dressing would benefit from higher seasoning, and if Raffi ever decided to use his leftover bread for croutons, the mix would be worth perhaps twice as much.

Fill up on the freebies. Appetizers aren't a focus at Ninetta's, with the only choices other than the tossed salad being an unremarkable insalata julien (greens boosted with tomato, hard-boiled egg, ham, cheese and olives); pasta e fagioli or minestrone ala genovese. By all means, order the pasta e fagioli. I could make a lunch of this hefty soup. This is hearty stuff, served blistering hot in an oversize bowl, and it's got all the right components: delicate tube noodles, tender whole beans, celery, tiny bits of carrot and parsley in a thick-bodied savory purée.

For further starters, we experiment with the regular menu. At lunch one day, my dining companion and I split a "cold plate" entree (it's a poor name for a dish, but to Ninetta's credit, our server plays with us, asking us if we'd like mittens on the side). What we get is two soft slices of very average mozzarella dusted with oregano, plus quartets of thin shaved prosciutto and salami served with insalatina. It's only five bucks, but even as just a nibble, don't bother.

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