Richard Foss

J. Trani’s Ristorante, A unity of Themes

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Chef Dustin Trani’s family has operated local restaurant for nearly a century. Still, even J Trani’s traditional fare has a modern flair

Inside J. Trani’s Ristorante.  Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

by Richard Foss

One of the modern memes in restaurant design is the deliberately inappropriate space. Trendy Italian in a warehouse, Korean food in a British pub, Southern traditional in an austere space reminiscent of a hospital, they’re all a thing in greater LA. It’s ironic humor expressed in architecture, and when done well it can mess with your expectations in an amusing way.

I generally prefer harmony of décor and dinner,  environments that seamlessly put me in another world or perhaps another era. On days like that, I’m likely to end up at J. Trani’s, a San Pedro classic. I admit a level of nostalgia here. My parents took me here as a child when it was Peppy’s steak and seafood house. When the Trani family took the place over in 1989 they converted a charming but relatively conventional place into a retro mountain lodge with English baronial touches. If you’re the kind of person who grooves on architecture you can wander around and notice details like the spokes radiating around the ceiling of the bar. If you aren’t you can just luxuriate in the atmosphere of vintage cool.

It’s pretty clear which camp I’m in. On a recent visit I spent quite a while viewing the place from all angles while waiting to be seated. Once ensconced at a table in a corner by the bar we spent some quality time with a pair of cocktails while examining the menu. The Sunken City (a renamed Gold Rush) was well-made, but the Black Tie Affair was more innovative and better. The mix of dry vermouth, chartreuse, Aperol, and chamomile-infused brandy had harmonious spicy and herbal flavors. San Pedro is short on craft bars, but these drinks make the case for Trani’s as the local leader in the field.

With regard to the food, Chef Dustin Trani could be forgiven if he served nothing but steaks, seafood, and pastas as dated as the architecture. His family has operated local restaurants for over 90 years. However, even the traditional offerings have a little modern flair. A case in point is the cold smoked swordfish carpaccio, which is tossed with olive oil and lemon and served on a board alongside a basket of toast. It’s a classic smoked fish appetizer, but the sprinkling of smoked red onion and radish sprouts adds a spicy tang to the old favorite.

On another evening I tried their “new style” calamari. It’s tossed with greens, Thai-spiced aioli, a dash of balsamic vinegar, and a sprinkle of black sesame seeds. The greens and sesame add flavor and varied textures to an item that is often just an excuse to eat crunchy batter. I would certainly order this again.

After the “new style” calamari, we considered ordering the “old fashioned” navy bean soup, but decided on the Trani’s salad instead. It’s just greens with fresh mushrooms, red onion, mushrooms and feta with an herb-mustard vinaigrette, but sometimes you just want simple flavors minimally accented. The only flaw was the bread that came with it, which was dense and characterless. It was fine toasted with the fish carpaccio, but with all the good Italian bakeries in town that can deliver good crusty bread there isn’t a reason to serve this.

For main courses, we decided on swordfish milanese and a sausage-stuffed pork chop with roasted root vegetables. Milanese on a menu usually means a thick breading on something pan-fried — a schnitzel by another name. It was breaded fish, but with a light crust of herbs and panko crumbs, and it suited the meaty, mild fish nicely. The filet had been topped with fresh green, yellow, and red cherry tomatoes and a bit of balsamic and olive oil, and served over mashed potatoes with asparagus, making a pretty and varied plate.

The stuffing on the pork was a thin layer that seemed to be more breading than actual sausage, but that didn’t detract from our enjoyment of that item. It was a good quality and very large piece of meat that had been rubbed with a slightly salty herb mix before being grilled, and it usually arrives topped with a rosemary demi-glace. I asked for this on the side because my wife sometimes finds these heavy, and I liked it both with and without it. The medley of carrots and parsnips sweetened when roasted and were a good companion. Along with the mashed potatoes it made a fine meal.

We had been seated in the bar rather than the main dining room

Filippo Trani, founder of the four generation restaurant family, left the island of Ischia for San Pedro, where he opened the Majestic Cafe in 1929. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

and as we ate we realized what a gathering place for the community this is. Just about everybody there had a greeting, hug, or handshake for Marco the bartender, and there was a lot of table-hopping. This isn’t surprising given J. Trani’s long history, but it’s nice to know that places like this still exist.

I had enjoyed the tiramisu on a previous visit but on this day we were too full for dessert. So after I finished the last of the glass of Chianti I had ordered with dinner we made our exit. Dinner for two with two cocktails and one glass of wine ran $128. It was money well spent. J. Trani’s is a slice of history. The bust of the founder in the lobby looks on approvingly as his legacy continues in high style.

 

  1. Trani’s is at 584 West 9th Street, San Pedro. Open Mon. 5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m., Tues. – Wed. 4 p.m. – 9 p.m., Thur. 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m., Fri. 11:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m., Sat. 5 p.m,. – 9:30 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m – 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. – 9 p.m., Parking lot, full bar. Some vegetarian items. Wheelchair access okay. Banquet room. Menu at JTrani.com. (310) 832-1220.