The more things change, the more Compari’s in Westchester has stayed the same
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
This may come as a shock to those who grew up in Los Angeles, but there are places in the world where people are surprised when things change. I’ve been to a few of them — the town in Kansas where my wife could navigate by landmarks she hadn’t seen since she was little, for example, and the waterside village in Maryland where my uncle has ordered off the same menu for at least 50 years. Sure, the prices are different, but if they took the crab imperial off the menu several generations of customers might riot.
Around here, it’s an unexpected pleasure when anything still exists the way you fondly remember it, but such moments can happen.
When I was fresh out of high school, I had a job at a travel agency in Westchester at the corner of La Tijera Boulevard and Centinela Avenue. On Fridays the company bought lunch, usually pizzas from a little Italian place in a strip mall around the corner. After I quit the job I pretty much forgot about the restaurant, until I noticed during a recent drive through the neighborhood that, at least from the outside, Compari’s — founded in 1960 — looked the same as it had decades ago.
As it turns out, Compari’s looks the same inside as well, which is noteworthy because it had been a paradise of Italian restaurant kitsch. The tablecloths are checkered; bad replicas of Old Master paintings line the walls; and the ceiling is festooned with hanging Chianti bottles, Christmas lights and plastic vines with bunches of plastic grapes.
Compari’s menu also still fits the décor — the most modern item is the so-called Cajun pasta, a relic of a dining craze of the early 1980s. Otherwise it’s a parade of the classics, including guilty pleasures like deep-fried mushrooms with garlic and simple joys like antipasto.
We ordered both the mushrooms and antipasto as starters, perhaps unconsciously hoping that the greens in the antipasto would balance out the impending onslaught of meat and starch in the rest of our meal.
It was a good basic antipasto — meat and cheese pinwheels, pepperoni, tomato and mozzarella on a bed of fresh greens, with house-made Italian dressing on the side. This was a cool, tangy counterpoint to the mushrooms dusted with Parmesan, which were served with mild blue cheese dressing rather than the expected ranch. The mushrooms arrived straight from the fryer and were too hot to eat at first, but the seasoned breadcrumb crust stayed crisp even when they had cooled down a bit. The only dud with this course was the complimentary bread, which arrived warm and dripping with garlic butter. We asked our server to run it back in the oven to crisp up, and though it was better after that the bread was still a bit on the oily side. I’d ask for the garlic butter to be applied lightly any time I return here.
For our main courses we chose the throwback Cajun pasta, the mahi mahi over spaghetti, and a pizza with olives, sausage, mushrooms and anchovy.
The pasta was a relic of the days when you could toss red pepper in anything and call it Cajun. Real Cajun sauces are based on the so-called trinity of onions, bell pepper and celery; and though there was a whisper of the first two here, they were faint and the celery was entirely missing. The sauce here was actually a typical spaghetti sauce with a gentle shot of red pepper, similar to a mild Italian Arrabbiata. This entrée was decent on its own merits — a big dish of pasta with shrimp, chicken and sausage in homemade sauce — but it wasn’t what the name might lead one to expect today.
The mahi mahi was a subtle success, the mild fish sautéed with a dash of herbs and served over linguini with a good lemon cream sauce. The consistency of the sauce was just right, thick enough to stick to the pasta so that it wasn’t a soupy mess. I might have enjoyed the fish baked instead of sautéed to get a bit of a crust on it, but it was just fine as it arrived.
The pizza was just as I had fondly remembered — neither under- nor over-sauced or cheesed, the crust a medium thickness with just a little chewiness. Ultra-thin Neapolitan crusts may be the modern rage, but there’s still much to like about the classic on display here.
A limited selection of beer and wine is available at very modest prices, and we had glasses of house Chianti and Cabernet with our meals. The pour was generous, but they arrived a shade warmer than they should have; the wines should be stored somewhere a bit cooler.
Dessert was a dense, cake-like tiramisu that the owner told us was made by a local Italian bakery. I prefer the lighter, creamier versions and a heavier hand with the espresso, but it made for a solid finish to the meal.
Dinner for three people ran $82 with wine, and though it was a nostalgic experience for me it would be equally enjoyable for a first-timer seeking a classic Italian dining experience. There are enduring virtues to old-school Italian food, and this hideaway in a strip mall shows them off well.
Compari’s 5490 W. Centinela Ave., Westchester (310) 670-8122 comparispizza.com