Free Dinners in L.A.—For a Price

One restaurant owner came up with a surefire way to raise cash for a pledge drive.
evan kleiman and molten chocolate cakes

If a lot of diners at Angeli Caffe skipped out on the bill this spring, there’s no one to blame but Evan Kleiman, the chef and owner of this rustic Italian restaurant on Melrose Avenue that’s almost 25 years old. During an on-air fund-raiser, Kleiman, who hosts KCRW’s Saturday morning all-things-edible radio show, Good Food, was getting worried. Like all public stations, KCRW gets half its income from ever-dwindling corporate sponsorships, which puts even more pressure on the hosts to drum up donations. “I panicked,” she said, and suddenly blurted out: “Anyone who calls in and pledges gets a free dinner at Angeli.” The phone banks lit up. An hour later, Kleiman’s rash offer led to a record number of pledges for the station. Mission accomplished.

But how do you feed more than 400 hungry people and not go out of business? First, Kleiman came up with some rules: The meals would be served on seven consecutive Monday nights only (March 2–April 6); no bringing wine or children; and only people who made pledges were eligible. To compensate the servers who had volunteered to work for free, a mandatory tip of $7 was part of the deal. Then she drew up a classic Angeli menu to be served family-style: antipasti misti with seasonal vegetables; a chard, spinach, and mizuna sauté with goat cheese and Marcona almonds; a béchamel-based lasagne (recipe below); Angeli’s sublimely lemony roast chicken; and a light salad of mixed greens. A few pastry chefs and bakers, who’d heard of Kleiman’s situation, donated desserts. George Cossette, co-owner of Silverlake Wines, offered to pinch hit as Monday-night sommelier.

“Thank you for your support—and for accepting my bribe,” Kleiman said to a group of donors who showed up recently for one of the dinners. Because of her only-those-who-pledged-get-to-eat ordinance, roughly 70 percent of diners came alone, many of them hanging around the edges of the restaurant looking shy and stiffly self-conscious. As if to acknowledge the awkwardness, Jennifer Ferro, executive producer of Good Food, kicked things off with a brief pep talk: “You guys think you’re all strangers. But you all have something in common and that’s KCRW and Good Food. So maybe you came in as strangers, but you’ll walk out as friends.” Almost as if to prove Ferro right, the noise in the room shot up immediately. By the time dessert (individual molten chocolate cakes from Susina Bakery’s Jenna Turner) was served, you’d have sworn you were eating in a room full of lifelong friends.

“It’s been like a love-in,” said Kleiman. “Everything you don’t think of when you think of L.A.—tight, supportive, sweet, kind, a real community.” In the end, Kleiman’s burst of on-air desperation proved an unexpectedly great way to introduce people to her consistently delicious neighborhood restaurant: As it turns out, many of her Good Food fans had never been to Angeli before.

Butternut Squash-Fontina Lasagne

1 medium-sized butternut squash
2 pounds Italian Fontina, cut into slices
Grated parmesan cheese
No-boil lasagne noodles
4 cups béchamel sauce (recipe below)

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Place on a lined baking sheet, cut side down. Bake until soft, approximately 45 minutes at 375-400°F.

When the squash is very soft, remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes. When cool enough to handle, scrape the flesh from the skin and place in a bowl.

Run the lasagne rectangles under cold water, then make a layer of them in a baking dish. Dot the cooked squash on top of the pasta layers. Drizzle a healthy amount of béchamel over all. Add a sparse layer of Fontina, then sprinkle grated parmesan. Continue layering in the same fashion until you have 2 to 3 layers of squash, Fontina, béchamel, and parmesan. (End with a layer of pasta, béchamel, and parmesan.)

Bake, covered, at 375°F until heated through. Remove the foil and let the top layer color until golden brown.

Béchamel Sauce

(Make a double recipe for the lasagne)
Makes 2 cups

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups hot milk
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the flour and stir to form a smooth paste. (Angled wood spatulas are great for this because you can really scrape the bottom of the pan to prevent burning.) Heat the milk in a separate saucepan or the microwave. When it is hot (but not boiling) pour it into the roux (the butter-flour mixture), stirring constantly with a whisk. Make sure you get into all the edges of the pan to coax all the roux into the milk. Cook over low heat until the sauce thickens and the flour taste is gone. Add salt and pepper to taste.

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