By K.D. Wallis
Do you ever wonder, as I do, how so many little independent restaurants manage to stay open in The San Fernando Valley, even in today’s economy? There is barely a block along Ventura Boulevard that doesn’t contain at least one – and often more than one – restaurant, some fairly new and many long-standing. This past weekend, however, I discovered four decades-old establishments, all in Studio City within a couple of blocks of each other, that had simply vanished: The Wine Bistro, Georgio’s, La Salsa and Fat Burger. Two were middle-of-theroad places, the first more upscale and expensive than the second. The Mexican fast-food place had once provided my boyfriend and me with a twofer to Cancun for the mere price of a burrito, so needless to say there was a soft spot in my heart for that one. The burger joint was just that: a joint, but a rather famous one, all things considered. It appears to have been replaced by an asian joint of some sort. Hmmm.
Back to my original question, though. I discovered, quite by accident, how one small Italian restaurant has managed to stay on top of its game for eight years. Saturday afternoon, as my friend Louise and I were heading down Ventura Boulevard from Woodland Hills to Encino, we came to a rather long red light near Zelzah Avenue. Louise, who was in the passenger seat, suddenly said, “Hey! Look at that cute little place!” The “cute little place” was what appeared to be a tiny Italian restaurant, nestled between a sandwich shop and several other small establishments, including a Sushi bar and a pizza parlor further down the same block. We both stared at the pretty sign on the window, which proclaimed it to be “Cafe Carolina, Authentic Italian” – and in small letters on the bottom of the sign, “A la salvut”.
“Salvut?” I said. “With a ‘v’? What language is that?” “I dunno,” Louise replied, “but it sure looks interesting. Maybe we could eat here tonight…?” I was less than enthusiastic about one more quasi-Italian place, knowing how many of them were run by people who had never set foot in Italy and whose ancestors came from…well, shall we say, elsewhere? I know, I know: That’s a little unfair of me. After all, I’m American through and through, yet I can cook anything I find in a cook book and do it well. So can other people, especially in good restaurants. But still, I do turn up my nose at Americanized ethnic foods of any kind, chief among them Italian. Between my uber-Italian pal, Louise, and my semi- Italian self, authentic old country-style Italian food is easily obtained at home.
Our friend, Alexandra, met us in Encino, where we did a little bit of shopping. All the while, Louise continued to focus on Cafe Carolina (“I have a feeling about this”), so we backtracked and found a parking spot directly in front of the front door. It looked mighty dark inside from where we sat, debating if this were really such a good idea. Of course, it was very early on a Saturday evening, which we all agreed might explain the apparent lack of clientele. Finally, Louise, in exasperation at our indecisiveness, got out of the car, walked into the restaurant and came back with a menu for us to look over. Alexandra and I took one look at the items listed and without further ado, said “Let’s do it!”. The host greeted us in a warm and friendly manner, giving us a table in the front window, just beneath that mysterious sign. “What language is that ‘salvut’ expression in?” I asked him as he seated us. “It’s a Northern Italian dialect and means ‘to your health’,” he said without even having to think about it. “The owner comes from a small town called Crema. In fact,” he continued, pointing to an item on the menu, “you’ll see the name of the town used in some of the dishes.” Indeed, it was the Ravioli Cremaschi that caught my attention, even while we were still in the car. When our charming, down-to-earth waitress arrived, I asked if we could order that and split it three ways as an appetizer. “Excellent idea!” she said and it certainly was. The single order was large enough for each of us to have three of the very large ravioli apiece and it was one of the most unusual dishes any of us had ever had: Each ravioli was about two inches in diameter, flat and round, with a generous “bump” of filling in the middle. Containing a mixture of raisins, citron, parmesan cheese and amaretti, in a sage butter sauce, they were addictively delicious – sweet enough to be a dessert, in fact, but not cloyingly so.
While we waited for the second courses, Louise and Alexandra split an Italian beer and I had a glass of one of my favorite wines, Montepulciano d’Abruzzi. Louise wanted a simple pizza margherita, while Alexandra and I ordered the lamb shank. We intended to split it all and if we were still hungry, we’d order something else. That never became necessary. The orange and mint braised Garretto d’Agnello arrived with a generous helping of broccoli and roasted potatoes, and the creamy mozzarella-and-marinara pizza worked perfectly with all of it. Throughout the meal, our waitress, Shelby, kept tabs on how we were doing, providing a running commentary on our orders as well as life at the restaurant, where she has worked for seven years. At one point, a gentle young man came over to check on us, introducing himself as the son of the owners. He, too, wished to assure us a good time. The couple at the table next to ours then spoke to him, remarking on how “grown up” he now seemed. They had known him since he was a teenager! By 7:30, when we were about to have dessert and coffee, the restaurant was nearly full. The clientele, running the gamut from early twenties to, well, let’s just say mature, seemed to lean to the upwardly mobile side of the economic scale. I should point out that the cafe isn’t as small a place as we had at first thought. Shelby explained that they had recently expanded into a second room, in order to qualify for a beer and wine license.
The entire place actually looks very new, with simple lines and a pleasant yellowish glow throughout. My only little gripe is that the lighting is too bright. It ruins what could otherwise be a rather romantic atmosphere. For dessert, Louise wanted to try the Torta di Nonna, a lemon-based torte with almonds and a lighter-than-air crust. By this time, Shelby knew to provide three forks. Grandma’s Torte, along with our caffe lattes, was a perfect ending to an utterly delicious meal. Though Alexandra doesn’t really cook much, she is the only one of us who has actually lived in Italy for extended periods. Cafe Carolina delighted her and brought up memories of her oldest son’s home in Puglia, where he has resided for many years. We can’t wait to go back to Cafe Carolina and try some of the other unusual dishes that they offer. It’s truly enticing to see a menu that offers something other than spaghetti and meatballs. The prices are so reasonable, we’ll probably make a semi-habit of it – at least until one of us spies another long-standing restaurant that we never heard of on our way to somewhere else. I think we all learned a little lesson Saturday night. It is entirely possible to discover wonderful restaurants in unexpected places (Cafe Carolina is on a very ordinary block in a less than glamorous stretch of Ventura Boulevard), especially if you let Louise lead the way. (Cafe Carolina, 17934 Ventura Bl., Encino, CA 91316 — Phone: (818) 881-8600 — http://www. organiccafecarolina.com/)