A couple of years ago, I was asked to contribute an essay to an online survey of “My most memorable meals.” I decided to write about Zito’s and to write this…

My most memorable meals would probably have more to do with who was across the table than what was on it. Get the right dinner companion and a two-fer coupon at Arby’s can yield a more memorable event than Passover with Wolfgang Puck.

But, looking just at what was on the plate, I can’t help but think of the best Italian restaurant of my childhood — Zito’s, which was on Pico Boulevard in West L.A., two blocks west of Westwood. Mr. Zito ran the business end and Mrs. Zito was in the kitchen, whipping up a dark, brown meat sauce, the likes of which I’ve yet to encounter. It was rich and obviously cooked slow and long…and if I knew what it contained, I wouldn’t be writing this, I’d be downstairs whipping up a batch.

Zito’s went out of business in the seventies and, since then, I trek from Italian restaurant to Italian restaurant, searching for anything even vaguely like Mama Zito’s masterwork. I’ve had some fine meals in my quest but, so far, no success in locating a clone. (Sometimes, when I sit down to plate of spaghetti in some obscure town I’ll never again visit, I am of two minds: I, of course, hope the meal will be wonderful…but what if I find a sauce comparable to Zito’s in a dive well off the Interstate in Jerkwater, Michigan? When am I ever going to be back there? How will I drag friends to that wonderful restaurant?

So far, this has not been a problem because I haven’t found it. I’ve also looked closer to home and haven’t found it there, either. Zito’s building stood empty for a year…then another Italian restaurant moved in. It was and is named Anna’s and, of course, I went there and found perfectly fine Italian food. But not like Zito’s.

I asked the operators of Anna’s and they told me that Mr. and Mrs. Zito had both passed away, as had the other members of the Zito family. They knew because I wasn’t the first Zito’s patron to inquire. Some had even (apparently) called representing major food corporations, hinting there might be Big Bucks if someone could come up with the recipe for Zito’s meat sauce. Alas, no one could.

I told this story once to a restaurant critic. To my surprise, he said, “It’s just as well. The recipe probably wouldn’t have yielded the same results in someone else’s hands.” Good food, he explained to me, can be created from a good recipe…but great food is a function of the person who prepares it. In other words, the secret ingredient in Mrs. Zito’s sauce was Mrs. Zito. She spent all day making it, no doubt, stirring it, tasting it, adding a pinch of this or a dash of that. “It’s like painting,” he explained. “I can tell you what color to paint a vase of flowers but that doesn’t mean you’re going to produce a Van Gogh.”

I’m afraid he’s right. How sad to think that Mrs. Zito took my favorite meal with her to the grave. On the other hand, I’ll bet God’s eating well.

Since I wrote this, Anna’s has closed down and will be the subject of another post here.

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