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Two evenings a week, Nancy Silverton packs up her favorite knives, a long Bragard apron and a teak saltbox that her father made (filled with kosher salt, fleur de sel and Maldon sea salt in separate compartments), and goes to work at two Los Angeles restaurants: on Mondays at the mozzarella bar she created for Jar, and on Tuesdays at the antipasto table she developed for La Terza. She does both for free, for fun.

Because Nancy is one of L.A.'s biggest food celebrities, her presence on these nights guarantees a crowd. La Brea Bakery and the restaurant Campanile, both of which she founded in 1989 with her then-husband, Mark Peel, and Manfred Krankl, are city landmarks, while the Thursday Grilled Cheese Night she started at Campanile a decade ago is an L.A. ritual. Her influence also extends far beyond the West Coast. In 2001, she and her partners sold La Brea Bakery to an Irish conglomerate for $55 million; that corporation now distributes to grocery stores the crusty European-style breads she helped pioneer in America.

Today, Nancy is in a position in life that few people ever achieve. With both La Brea Bakery and Campanile off her hands (she recently sold most of her interest in the restaurant as well), an ordinary person might find herself facing an identity crisis, or at least feeling a bit untethered. Not Nancy. Unfettered by the daily responsibilities of running a business, she can do exactly what she wants, which, it turns out, is working with food.

When she isn't at Jar or La Terza, she's thinking up recipes for her seventh cookbook, the forthcoming Twist of the Wrist, in which she uses high-quality packaged ingredients for terrific fast recipes in the hopes of persuading readers to cook easy meals instead of ordering take-out. Or she's on the prowl, along with soon-to-be partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, for a space in L.A. in which to open a restaurant tentatively called Latte. The restaurant will feature Italian-inspired antipasti and mozzarella creations like those she serves at Jar and La Terza, as well as pizza and other dishes. The L.A. project will be Mario's first restaurant outside New York City, and he says working with Nancy is his only motivation for the venture: "She and I are kindred spirits in the world of simplicity and big flavor."

Today's lunch is a typical Nancy Silverton affair. Held at her sister Gail's house in the outdoor dining room, the party includes dishes Nancy is working on for various projects, all of them served at room temperature. Nancy has prepared a quick and easy paprika-spiked chickpea stew using Matiz Navarro jarred chickpeas, a Spanish brand that's one of her favorites; she tops the stew with tender lamb meatballs that soak up the flavorful juices. Sautéed Broccolini flecked with anchovies and sweet, slow-cooked garlic makes a delicious side dish for a simple cauliflower frittata topped with aged balsamic vinegar and truffle salt. Shredded iceberg lettuce serves as the crunchy base for an antipasto with bocconcini (bite-size balls of mozzarella) and salami. Another fresh, summery salad combines fregola (Sardinian pasta) with cucumber, tomatoes and mint in a lemon—olive oil dressing.

This is the kind of food that plays to Nancy's strengths. While she trained professionally as a baker, not as a cook, she has an incredible palate. "If someone asked me to fillet a whole fish, I wouldn't have a clue," she says. "But if I taste a dish, I'll know exactly what it needs." Like a chemist, she might add a drop of lemon juice or a scattering of sea salt to "bring the flavor to another level," as she puts it. At lunch, she checks several times to make sure guests have seasoned the food correctly—added a dab of yogurt to the meatballs, for instance, or a dusting of fennel pollen to the onions roasted with balsamic vinegar. At one point, she jumps up to sprinkle truffle salt on someone's frittata and asks, "Doesn't that make all the difference?"

When it's time for dessert, Nancy explains that the strawberry and dulce de leche pies—made with store-bought ice cream that she mixed until creamy, scraped into a graham-cracker crust and refroze—are something she's testing for her cookbook. "I thought that taking that little extra effort to turn pints of ice cream into a pie would be more special than serving scoops in a bowl with sauces," she says. Everyone agrees that airy pies topped with hot fudge, caramel or strawberry sauce are delicious. "Let's put them in the book," she says, as if it's all a collaboration—which, for Nancy, comes naturally. As she turns to walk back to the kitchen, she says to herself, "What next?" We're all waiting to hear her answer.

Jar Restaurant, 8225 Beverly Blvd. at Harper Ave., Los Angeles; 323-655-6566. La Terza, 8384 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; 323-782-8384.

Carolynn Carreño is the co-author of Nancy Silverton's forthcoming cookbook, Twist of the Wrist, and a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times.

Published July 2005
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