Less is more

Floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of E. Baldi look out onto a sidewalk terrace. Stark minimalism dominates the celeb and industry magnet’s décor. (Damon Winter / LAT)

The Baldi family of Ristorante Giorgio Baldi in Santa Monica, the neighborhood Italian for the A-list crowd, has a new offspring in Beverly Hills. That would be E. Baldi, headed up by Giorgio's son Edoardo and his wife, Darnell.

Instead of the ramshackle charm of the original, this one has a budget minimalist look. But who needs décor when the clientele is as stylish and star-studded as this one? Though Warren Beatty and Annette Bening are sharing a light supper one night, other diners are blasé — and polite — enough to pretend not to notice.

It may already be a bona fide celeb magnet and industry lunch spot, but E. Baldi is not simply a clone of the wildly successful Giorgio Baldi. And Edoardo Baldi's cooking is often very good, more ambitious and better executed than I ever remember Giorgio Baldi being.

At Giorgio Baldi, the "specials" are the same year after year. Here, there are new dishes in most categories every day — just one of the ways that Edoardo, Giorgio's son, sets his restaurant ever so slightly apart from his father's eponymous ristorante.

Attentive to the 'A' list

Early one afternoon, Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch film director, wanders into the stark, all-white room for lunch, the proofs of the ad for his latest film in hand. He's immediately recognized and acknowledged and led to a window table. The hosts, Darnell among them, have the celebrity thing down cold. Minutes later, here's the diminutive chef himself stepping out from the kitchen to welcome the director.

Guests who don't think twice about dropping more than $100 a person for a casual dinner seem to love the fact that it's small and intimate enough that they can keep up the pretence that it's just a simple trattoria, no big deal.

Though in some circles diners might consider dressing up to eat a $33 Dover sole or $32 lobster, here, at lunch, a fiftysomething man shows up in a trucker's hat stenciled with the words "white boy" and 2-day-old stubble. An actor dressed like any regular guy studies a script while he waits for his ravioli. A beautiful woman wearing major jewelry and sitting alone dials her cellphone over and over and over.

Winter sunlight streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the boxy space at the corner of Cañon Drive and Brighton Way. A handful of hardy souls have taken up seats on the sidewalk terrace and are sipping iced tea. It's shady here, more discreet than the corner diagonally across the intersection, where Il Pastaio's sidewalk tables bask in the sun and patrons break out their sunglasses.

All along Cañon — at La Scala, at Porta Via, Enoteca Drago and Caffé Roma — tables are filling up for the lunch crowd. Can this street possibly welcome one more Italian? I guess so, because every time I've gone to E. Baldi, the newcomer has been busy.

E. Baldi is a prime example of that peculiar genre, the L.A. Italian, so it's no surprise the waiter feels the need to introduce the fact that the butternut squash purée, the soup of the day, has no dairy and just a touch of amaretto. Or to interrupt the conversation to ask, is everything enjoyable?

The dishes don't seem to come from any defined region. Though the Baldi family has roots on the Tuscan coast, butter, not olive oil, is used with abandon. Dishes are less rustic, more citified, than you'd find at anything but a resort restaurant in Tuscany.

And wine prices aren't particularly friendly. Want a glass of wine? The cruvinet is filled with big-name, big-time bottles from Gaja, Jermann, Antinori and other high-end producers. If the prices weren't so high, it could be a wonderful way to experience these wines. As it is, I'm not paying $67 for a glass of 2001 Solaia, or $45 for a glass of Tignanello from the same vintage; who knows how long the bottles have been open? The selection of Italian wines by the bottle is well-edited, though, and you can find a number of bottles for less than $50.

One night, my first visit there, a guest brings an offbeat Italian wine he is eager to try. The waiter opens the bottle, pours us a glass and five minutes later comes back to apologize. He's new and didn't know the restaurant does not allow guests to bring in a wine and pay a corkage fee. He's very sorry, but the manager says he has to charge us $40 corkage.

Forty dollars? Though it was an honest mistake and not our fault the waiter opened the bottle, we're to be severely penalized. The reasonable thing to do would be to charge an average corkage fee, somewhere in the neighborhood of $20. Even Valentino with its stupendous Italian wine list doesn't charge $40. Nobody does. Is this a way to make friends for your restaurant?

After a discussion, Signora Baldi, who defends her husband's policy by telling us he's worked at the finest Italian restaurant in Southern California (and that would be Giorgio Baldi, of course, in her view), gets permission to drop the corkage fee to $30. How very generous.

A similar high-handedness is evident in the fact that every waiter I've had neglects to mention the price of the truffle specials. You can have ravioli or risotto or beef carpaccio with white truffles shaved over, he'll tell you, and continue recounting the rest of the numerous specials, all without any mention of prices. Er, how much is that truffle pasta special? Ninety dollars.

The shame is that if the management's attitude were a shade less haughty and the prices transparent you'd enjoy the meal more and wouldn't go away with the sinking feeling that you've been taken advantage of. Because the cooking, in fact, is better than it needs to be for a celebrity spot in Beverly Hills.

Some tempting starters