Puck to close his original star-gazing restaurant

As usual, Hollywood's legendary Spago restaurant will host the king of Oscar parties after the awards ceremony this Sunday night. But this year's gala will be splashier than ever.

On March 31, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck is closing his first restaurant, a mecca for movie stars and dealmakers since it opened 19 years ago.

"Wolfgang wants to go out knowing he has done a really great job," says Mr. Puck's spokeswoman, Jannis Swerman. "It's kind of like when Jerry Seinfeld went off the air after nine successful years, before people said 'He's not like he used to be,' " She adds that the need for costly renovations at Spago Hollywood also influenced Puck's decision.

If you haven't eaten there yet, and are suddenly scrambling to book a reservation, keep scrambling. One of America's most exclusive restaurants, where unknowns are ushered to one of two back dining rooms nicknamed "Siberia" and "Antarctica," isn't about to change now. A few nights this month are booked for invitation-only parties, and other nights are filling up fast.

There are always the other restaurants that Puck owns with his wife, designer Barbara Lazaroff - 26 in all, from Beverly Hills to Tokyo.

But those who appreciate Puck's fresh, light, and much-imitated California cuisine more than the scene at his trendy restaurants could always pick up a few tricks during one of his numerous television appearances or, better yet, track down one of his cookbooks.

Puck's latest book, "Wolfgang Puck's Pizza, Pasta, and More!" ($35, Random House, 205 pp.), shows that even a chef of his caliber can understand the plight of time-strapped home cooks.

It features casual favorites of his customers as well his own family, including sons, Cameron and Byron, who, according to dad, enjoy making pasta and pizza even more than eating them.

Dishes such as Chicken Lasagna, Penne with Fresh Peas and Prosciutto, or Greek Shrimp Salad demonstrate Puck's flair for imaginative twists on the classics - without sending cooks to umpteen stores to shop for esoteric ingredients.

But it's his pizzas that are most accessible - and not just in the frozen food section of your local supermarket.

Those topped with spicy scallops and artichokes; smoked salmon and caviar; or spinach, mushroom, and blue cheese could dazzle guests at your own Oscar party. They are also simple enough (especially if you take a few key shortcuts such as buying pizza dough instead of kneading your own) that you won't be stuck in the kitchen during preshow festivities.

Guests won't brag that they ate from the same dessert tray as Juliette Binoche or Johnny Depp, but at least they can say they dined in the style of Spago - and they weren't relegated to "Siberia."

Spinach, Mushroom, and Blue Cheese Pizza

6 ounces pizza dough (make your own or buy top-quality variety)

2 tablespoons pesto (top-quality, store-bought variety or make your own from recipe below)

1 cup baby spinach leaves, stemmed, washed, and dried

1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese

1/2 cup grated Fontina cheese

1 large Roma tomato, ends trimmed, cut into 7 slices

1/2 cup button mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned, thinly sliced

1-1/2 ounces blue cheese, crumbled

Pinch of minced fresh oregano

Pinch of minced fresh thyme

1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan

Place pan or pizza stone on middle rack of oven and preheat oven to 500 degrees F. On a lightly floured surface, stretch or roll the dough into an 8-inch round. Move dough onto pizza stone or pan. Brush the inner circle with pesto. Arrange spinach leaves on the dough, then the remaining ingredients. Bake until the dough is nicely browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a firm surface and cut with pizza cutter or a large sharp knife. Serve immediately. Makes one 8-inch pizza.

Pesto (for the pizza)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 medium garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted

12 medium fresh basil leaves, washed and dried

Pinch of salt

Pour oil in a blender. Add garlic, nuts, and basil leaves.

Blend on low to a smooth paste.

Season with salt. Makes 1/4 cup.

- Recipes from 'Pizza, Pasta, and More!' by Wolfgang Puck

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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