THE ITALIANS

WHEN WE MOVED HERE FROM NEW YORK IN 1975 THERE WAS ONLY ONE DECENT ITALIAN RESTAURANT, VALENTINOS, PIERO SELVAGGIO’S TEMPLE OF NORTHERN ITALIAN DINING.  IT WAS ELEGANT AND EXPENSIVE WITH SERVICE TO MATCH AND DISHES PREPARED JUST AS WELL OR BETTER BY HALF A DOZEN ITALIAN RESTAURANTS IN NEW YORK OR CHICAGO.  VALENTINOS CLOSED THE BEGINNING OF THIS YEAR.

THE REASON FOR THE SCARCITY OF GOOD ITALIAN RESTAURANTS WAS PRETTY OBVIOUS — NO ITALIANS.  AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY THE FLOOD OF MOSTLY SOUTHERN ITALIAN IMMIGRANTS SAILED TO NEW YORK, NEW ORLEANS, BOSTON, CHICAGO AND SAN FRANCISCO.  AND THERE ARE PLENTY OF GREAT “RED-SAUCE” ITALIAN RESTAURANTS IN ALL OF THOSE CITIES.  IT TOOK ANOTHER GENERATION FOR THE MORE PROSPEROUS RESTAURATEURS AND CHEFS FROM NORTHERN ITALY TO FIND THEIR WAY TO NEW YORK AND ANOTHER TEN YEARS BEFORE THEY STARTED COOKING IN L.A.

IN THE INTERVENING YEARS THAT TRICKLE HAS TURNED INTO A FLOOD.  THE LION’S SHARE OF THE NEWCOMERS BRING US THE FOOD OF TUSCANY (OSTERIA ANGELINI)AND PIEMONTE, BUT THE REGIONS HAVE EXPANDED TO INCLUDE SPECIALTIES FROM BOLOGNA (ROSSOBLU), MILAN (BRERA) AND THE VENETO (OSTERIA MAMMA).  NONE OF THESE RESTAURANTS ARE PURELY REGIONAL AND THE CHEFS FREELY INCORPORATE DISHES AND TECHNIQUES FROM OTHER AREAS AS WELL AS INGREDIENTS LIKE AVOCADOS AND CITRUS FRUITS WHICH ARE MORE CALIFORNIAN THAN ITALIAN.  

THE FOLLOWING LIST IS HARDLY COMPREHENSIVE.  LIVING IN HOLLYWOOD WE RARELY VENTURE WEST OF THE 405 TO EAT ITALIAN SINCE SO MANY OF OUR FAVORITES ARE EAST OF HERE OR DOWNTOWN.  BUT THESE ARE THE PLACES WE RETURN TO AGAIN AND AGAIN.  

OSTERIA MAMMA (5732 MELROSE AVE.)  MAMMA LOREDANA PASSED AWAY A FEW YEARS AGO, BUT HER SON FILIPPO SOLDIERS ON CHEERFULLY DELIVERING LIGHT AND LOVELY DISHES FROM THE VENETO SUCH AS PASTA WITH MIXED SEAFOOD, TUNA TARTARE WITH AVOCADO, BEEF CARPACCIO WITH ARUGULA AND GRAND PADANO, RISOTTO WITH SEASONAL TRUFFLES, GRILLED FILLET OF BRANZINO, AS WELL AS PIZZAS AND EXCELLENT SALADS.  THE WINE LIST FEATURES LOVELY WHITES FROM THE ALTO ADIGE AS WELL AS REASONABLY-PRICED REDS FROM PIEMONTE, TUSCANY AND UMBRIA.  THIS IS A REAL FAMILY RESTAURANT WITH A CONVIVIAL AMBIENCE AND EFFICIENT, THOUGHTFUL SERVICE.  

BRERA (1331 E. 6TH AVE.), SITUATED IN A CONVERTED GAS METER STORAGE WAREHOUSE, MAY BE THE MOST DRAMATIC DINING SPACE IN L.A.  THIRTY-FOOT CEILINGS WITH SKYLIGHTS GIRDED IN IRON AND ETCHED GLASS, A WOOD-FIRED GRILL AND A BAR WHICH STRETCHES THE WIDTH OF THE DINING ROOM CONTRASTS WITH CUSHY BANQUETS AND COMFORTABLE, UPHOLSTERED CHAIRS.  THE MENU IS A COLLABORATION BETWEEN MANAGER MATTEO FERDINANDI AND CHEF ANGELO AURIANA (FORMERLY AT VALENTINOS), BOTH OF WHOM GREW UP IN THE PO VALLEY, NOT FAR FROM MILAN.  MATTEO’S WIFE FRAN IS THE WINE BUYER AND SOMMELIER.  THE CROWNING GLORY OF BRERA ARE THE RISOTTOS WHICH HAVE THAT SLIGHTLY SOUPY CONSISTENCY FAVORED IN THE VENETO WITHOUT SACRIFICING THE AL DENTE RESISTANCE OF THE VIALONE RICE.  THEY CHANGE SEASONALLY BUT IF YOU GO TOMORROW YOU CAN CHOOSE AMONG PORCINI, MILANESE WITH SAFFRON OR GUANCETTA MADE WITH VEAL CHEEKS.  FIRST COURSES AND SALADS MAY FEATURE LENTILS OR SQUID WITH SEA BEANS.  THIS MAY BE THE ONLY PLACE IN TOWN WHERE YOU CAN GET BOTH SEA EEL AND BISTECCA FIORENTINA.  GRACIOUS SERVICE.  SUPERIOR BUT PRICEY WINE LIST.  

RIGHT NEXT DOOR TO BRERA IS THE MORE CASUAL, LESS EXPENSIVE SIXTH&MILL IN A LIGHT-FILLED MODERN SPACE, WHERE YOU CAN LUNCH ON PIZZAS, PASTAS, SALADS, AND SMALL PLATES, WASHING IT DOWN WITH A GLASS OF FALANGHINA.  A BLOCK NORTH IS MATTEO’S FIRST RESTAURANT FACTORY KITCHEN ON FACTORY PLACE.  THE DISHES HERE ARE LIGHTER WITH EXCELLENT FIRST COURSE SALADS AND CREATIVE MAINS.  WE GO FOR LUNCH BECAUSE AT NIGHT IT CAN BE DEAFENING.  

SPARTINA (7505 MELROSE AVE.)  BEHIND WHAT ONCE WAS JOHNNY ROCKETS IS A SHADED PATIO AND AN AIRY DINING SPACE CALLED SPARTINA.  I DON’T KNOW WHY STEPHEN KALT ABANDONED HIS SUCCESSFUL NEW YORK RESTAURANT TO RESETTLE IN L.A. BUT I’M VERY GLAD HE DID.  I GOT TO KNOW THIS MENU ALMOST TOO WELL WHEN I WAS PERFORMING A PLAY AT THE MATRIX LAST YEAR, BUT THE NUMBER OF TIMES WE ATE THERE IS A TESTIMENT TO HOW MUCH WE LIKE HIS DISHES.  IT IS DIFFICULT TO CATEGORIZE KALT’S FOOD WHICH RANGES FROM FRIED SQUASH BLOSSOMS STUFFED WITH RICOTTA, AVOCADO AND MINT TO TRENETTE PASTA WITH OCTOPUS, BONE MARROW AND PARMIGIANO, ALTHOUGH GIVEN THE HEARTINESS OF THE DISHES SOME OF WHICH ARE QUITE SPICY, I’D CALL IT A MELD OF BOLOGNA AND CALABRIA.  KALT IS A RESTLESS SOUL SO IN ADDITION TO FAVORITES LIKE PIZZA BIANCA WITH ROASTED PEAR, TALEGGIO AND FONTINA OR SLOW-ROASTED CHICKEN WITH CARROTS AND DATES, YOU MAY ENCOUNTER DUNGENESS CRAB SALAD WITH FRISÉE IN A GRAINY MUSTARD DRESSING OR PORK COLLAR RAGU WITH CALABRIAN CHILES.  INTERESTING AND REASONABLE WINE LIST.  

ROSSOBLU (1124 SAN JULIAN ST.), LOCATED SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FASHION DISTRICT, SHARES A PLAZA WITH DAMA AND A STAND-ALONE COFFEE BAR.  AT NIGHT THIS UPSCALE PLAZA IS AN OASIS OF LIGHT IN A SEA OF DARKENED STORE FRONTS.  ADMITTEDLY, I HAVE ONLY DINED AT ROSSOBLU TWICE, BUT I WILL CERTAINLY RETURN IF JUST FOR THE FRITTO MISTO, A MEDLEY OF BAY SCALLOPS, SHRIMP, CALAMARI, AND DISKS OF PRESERVED LEMON FRIED IN THE CRUNCHIEST AND MOST ETHERIAL OF BATTERS.  FOR A RESTAURANT SPECIALIZING IN THE FOOD OF BOLOGNA, CHEF/OWNER STEVE SAMSON HAS AN UNEXPECTEDLY LIGHT TOUCH.  HIS BOLOGNESE IS SPARCE WITH TOMATOES BUT TOOTHSOME AND FLAVORFUL WITH JUST ENOUGH RAGU TO COAT THE HOUSE-MADE PAPPARDELLE.  YOU CAN START WITH A SWISS CHARD TARTLET WITH STRACCHINO CHEESE, GRILLED CHERRYSTONE CLAMS, COLD BIG EYE TUNA, OR SAMSON’S JUSTIFIABLY CELEBRATED TORTELLINI IN BRODO, AN UPSCALE CHICKEN SOUP DOTTED WITH TINY ATOLLS OF PORK AND CHICKEN STUFFED PASTA.  ON OUR LAST VISIT WE SHARED A RIB SECTION OF SUCKLING PIG.  ONE HAS A CHOICE OF CUTS AND I MIGHT HAVE OPTED FOR THE HEAD WITH BRAISED TONGUE BUT NOBODY WANTED TO SHARE THAT WITH ME. THE RIB SECTION, JUICY WITH A CARAPACE OF CRISP SKIN WAS HARDLY DISAPPOINTING.  THE WINE LIST WITH AN EMPHASIS ON PIEMONTE AND LOMBARDIA CONTAINS ENOUGH BOTTLES UNDER $50 TO MAKE YOUR MEAL AFFORDABLE.  THE SPACE, BOTH INDOOR AND OUT, IS DRAMATIC WITH A MURAL DOMINATING ONE ENTIRE WALL.  INSIDE IT TENDS TO GET NOISY.  OUTSIDE MIGHT BE TOO BREEZY.  WE SANT AT TABLE 72 WHICH STRADDLES BOTH SPACES.  WE WILL BE BACK.  

IN ADDITION TO THESE FOUR, I WOULD ADD ALL ‘ACQUA IN ATWATER; BESTIA IN THE ARTS DISTRICT WHERE THE FOOD IS GREAT AND THE SOUND LEVEL UNBEARABLE; MOZZA PIZZERIA FOR MY FAVORITE PIZZAS IN TOWN AND RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER ON MELROSE CHI SPACCA FOR A COZY, MEAT-CENTRIC MEAL.  

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