Restaurants; THE REVIEW; Deliciously offbeat; You’ve got to love a place that serves pizza by the yard and ‘da bomb.’:[HOME EDITION]
Across the street, in front of a still-open tattoo parlor, a woman wrestles with the heavy chain that locks her muscle-bound motorcycle. I can hear it clank against the sidewalk from my seat at an outdoor table at Cheebo on Sunset Boulevard. As we wait for a pizza, a musician fresh from the road, heavy backpack and a couple of instrument cases strung across his shoulders, wanders in, followed by a pair of svelte bohemians murmuring in French. At the curb, a photo-ready couple nuzzle as they wait for their car. There’s always some kind of entertaining scene at this Hollywood spot.
Cheebo (the phonetic spelling of cibo, Italian for “food”) is an anomaly in the neighborhood where cheap ethnic or fast-food restaurants is about all you can reasonably expect. But Cheebo is not only cheerful, it’s fun, moderately priced and seriously hip. The food — especially the pizzas — also happens to be delicious. It’s as alien in its setting as a flying saucer in the middle of Sunset Boulevard. And just so you won’t miss it, the entire facade is painted an eye- popping orange.
Cheebo’s founder, Sandro Reinhardt, is doing something unique here.
He’s showing you can have it all: fair prices, good ingredients and real food. Everything is made from scratch, with high-quality ingredients. The menu states it simply: “When possible, our foods are organic, hormone and pesticide free.” Not that it would make a difference if the kitchen couldn’t perform. As it happens, it does, in a smart and earthy kind of way. Small wonder: Not only are the twentysomethings who haunt Hollywood clubs ending up at Cheebo, so are the die-hard foodies.
Some come for the pizzas based on the same dough used at Pace, the owner’s other restaurant, in Laurel Canyon. I don’t know why, but somehow it tastes better here. Slicked with olive oil, your pie arrives billowy and blistered from the oven, garnished with any of 10 toppings. Some are classic, like the straightforward cheese pizza with mozzarella and tomato sauce. Others are Cheebo’s own invention. There’s the Alfredo, with the elements of the familiar pasta sauce – - cream, ham, ricotta and mushroom — adapted, more or less successfully, to a pizza topping. And there’s an oddball pizza topped with chopped clam and jalapeno.
These are not the typical American pizzas so freighted with cheese and stuff you need a forklift to convey a slice to your mouth. Cheebo’s pizzas are more California-Italian in inspiration. Embellishments are applied with a light hand, so the virtues of that wonderful sourdough crust shine through a discreet smear of tomato and fresh mozzarella.
And they’re not round, either. They’re slightly rectangular, about a foot long and served on wooden boards, which keeps them hot longer. The takeout option is the “slab,” 3 feet long, which you can order with toppings in sections. Just the thing for a night at home with the latest installment of “The Sopranos.”
Some regulars skip the pizza in favor of the PorkWich, a pressed sandwich of slow-roasted organic pork and Manchego cheese. Though it wouldn’t have cheese in Italy, it’s the closest thing in town to porchetta, the sumptuous roast-pork sandwiches sold from little trucks all over central Italy. There’s a fine pressed ham and Jarlsberg sandwich too. The half-pound Cheebo burger made from ground chuck (all the better for flavor) comes in two politically correct alternate versions: organic ground turkey breast and ahi tuna steak.
OK, great place for a pizza or a sandwich, but a full-fledged dinner? That’s when the surprise comes in. Cheebo is much more than a pizza joint. Salads, pasta, main courses — even fish — are all good. I keep meeting other people who have fallen for the place. One mentions the Cheebo chop, another raves about the ribollita.
The standout among the salads clearly is the Cheebo chop, for all intents and purposes a chopped chef’s salad. The perky mix of greens, tomatoes and olives with roast chicken, soppressata, salami, provolone and mozzarella is impeccably dressed, every element fresh and interesting. Cheebo’s ribollita is the real thing, a rustic soup of beans and bitter greens thickened with chunks of bread, very like the versions you’d find in any Tuscan farmhouse and a wonderful pick- me-up after a brutal day. The minestrone is home-style, too, chunks of potato, green beans, zucchini, carrots and more cooked together until their flavors meld. Bland but comforting: All it needs is a little grated Parmigiana.
I admit that the first time I ordered a pasta here, sitting at the counter one night next to a giant crock filled with armloads of sunflowers, I didn’t expect much. But the homemade ravioli “o da night” is supple and tender, plumped with ricotta and spinach. It’s absolutely classic. It turns out chef Alberto Lazzarino is Italian. Spaghetti Bolognese is perfectly respectable, too, a tall twirl of spaghetti cooked al dente and lightly sauced with pulled beef, moist shreds of beef in its juices.
On a smart budget
We delve further into the menu. I love the skillet-baked Manila clams, a soupy bowl of clams in the shell cooked with borlotti beans and slivered artichokes, but I wish somebody had gotten all the grit out. Braised brisket with good mashed potatoes and sweet whole roasted onions makes a fine supper. There’s that slow-roasted pork again, too, this time as a main course with soft wrinkly ribbons of braised cabbage, and a handsome piece of wild salmon cooked on a cedar plank. The night’s special is a beautifully braised lamb shank with mashed sweet potatoes.
Sweets have integrity too. The chocolate souffle, otherwise known as “da bomb,” is worth the 20-minute wait. Take a fork to it and black chocolate oozes out like lava. If you’re in a hurry, go with the brownies. Crusty on the outside and soft and chewy inside, they’re served with a big dollop of whipped cream. Tiramisu is a soft mound of ladyfingers, mascarpone and cream, though a little short on the caffeine. Peach and blueberry cobbler is really a crumble or crisp. That doesn’t seem to stop people from scarfing down the steaming hot sludge of fresh fruit with a hippie-style oatmeal topping.
The wine list is a bit weak, but most people here seem more intent on ordering by the glass than by the bottle. Still, it’s a shame the list doesn’t reflect the full range of terrific, modestly priced wines available right now. The good news is that new wines are added almost every week.
The valet parking is a bit unconventional too. No uniforms: just a kid in a gray sweatshirt. When we gave him our ticket one night (at first I wasn’t sure if he even was the valet parker). He disappeared down the block, opened the door of an old Saab parked there and rummaged around for a while. It turns out that’s where he keeps the keys.