The nighttime traffic screeches to a standstill at the seamy intersection of Melrose and Wilton. Some idiot in a black, late-model Mercedes has just performed an illegal U-turn and skidded into the alley next to Osteria La Buca. But rather than actually pulling into the alley, the car stops halfway onto the sidewalk, leaving the back half of the sedan hanging into oncoming traffic. When all four doors immediately swing open, it looks, at first, as if the car’s occupants are running from the cops. But then a gaggle of big-haired women—I imagine the mothers of the entire cast of Jersey Shore—lumber out, laughing. They are all oblivious to the traffic quagmire and curbside spectacle they’ve just created.
Horns are honking. A dog is barking behind the fence of a nearby duplex. The light on Melrose is green, yet traffic can’t budge. An exasperated valet rushes to the Mercedes to remove it from the street as the women file into the restaurant and are shown straight to an upstairs table. Meanwhile, my party and I are standing on the sidewalk, waiting for our table to open up.
“Sorry. Reservations are running 10 to 15 minutes behind tonight.”
An older couple emerges from the restaurant, rubbing their bellies and smiling. “Where’s the valet?” the man wonders. “Maybe we should just go for a walk,” says the woman. “Oh, wasn’t that the best salad you’ve ever eaten?” “Yes. Can you believe it? Grilled lettuce. I didn’t know that was possible.”
A couple of hours later, the valet will still be swamped, and I’ll be the one on the sidewalk rubbing my belly and raving about the charred romaine while someone else is waiting in line to get in. The Romano is indeed an awesome salad. Against the searing flame of a grill, sturdy romaine lettuce transforms into a smoky, musky delicacy whose wilted outer leaves are made even more seductive by the chunks of maplewood-smoked bacon and shavings of sharp Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. I’m already plotting my return so I can enjoy it again.
Osteria La Buca is not new or even newly popular. It’s been around forever, just like its storefront neighbors—a shady convenience/liquor store and a Oaxacan joint that’s far too grungy to be so brightly lit. The first time I ate here, seven or eight years ago, this place was a dump, too. No bigger than a shoebox, it was called simply La Buca. It served decent pizzas, but the rest of the food was crap. I remember chewing on a piece of lamb that was tougher than leather, wondering why my successful movie-industry friends had dragged me here.
Then, a couple of years ago, the owner apparently had saved up enough money from serving a steady stream of executives from Paramount Studios (just two blocks away) to hire designerKristopher Keith to re-envision the place. A second-floor dining room and a large fireplace were added (as was the word “osteria”), and the roof was cut open to let the moonlight shine in.
Hipsters descended upon it like actors at an open audition, and they all fell in love with the then-manager’s doting, charismatic mother (known to everyone as Mama), who made fresh pasta from scratch daily, which would become one of the restaurant’s hallmarks. While the noodles were technically authentic, the pizzas were still the better reason to come.
A few months ago, however, something happened that upset a lot of regulars and staff alike. Mama and her son parted ways with owner Graham Snyder.
A new chef, Alberto Lazzarino, makes the pastas now. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the Piemonte native has been working in L.A.’s Italian dining scene since the days of the long ago shuttered Rex Il Ristorante, downtown. Through the years, he’s since headed the kitchens of Alto Palato, Il Moro, Piccolo Ristorante and most recently his very own place, Melograno, a very elegant endeavor that never managed to rise above its unsavory Hollywood Boulevard locale the way La Buca has surprisingly done on this forgotten stretch of Melrose.
I’m sitting at the bar one night eating a bowl of bucatini, and I’m thinking that this is almost the best bowl of pasta in town at the moment. Bucatini look like spaghetti, but they’re slightly thicker and have a microscopic hole running through their centers, like flexible tubing. From bite to bite, the flavor swings from sweet to spicy to savory, from the vinegary kick of Italian peppers to the sweet-tart deluge of melted cherry tomatoes or the lard-laden silkiness of guanciale (cured pork jowl).
I’ve just about licked my bowl clean when a woman dressed in a miniskirt, chunky heels and black stockings climbs onto the stool next to mine and begins aggressively quizzing the bartender.
“Is the pasta any good?” the woman asks, running a finger down the menu.
“It’s very good,” says the bartender, Snyder, who introduces himself.
I look at my bowl. It’s empty. I lean toward her. “Get the bucatini,” I say. “And the Margherita pizza.”
There’s not a lot of innovation going on here, yet strangely I don’t mind. Lazzarino serves all the usual standards: beet salad with goat cheese, burrata with heirloom tomatoes and prosciutto, fried calamari, beef carpaccio, lasagna, osso bucco, tiramisu and a surprisingly decent steak for only $25.
Ambitious? No. Boring? It’s not that, either. My biggest complaint is not that a chef’s talent is being wasted on such generic fare. Rather, his pastas—as they always have been here—are excessively sauced. Although the noodles are perfect, there’s way too much sauce. Other than that, I’m really just nitpicking.
And that tiramisu? I think it’s the best one in Los Angeles. It is a massive, quivering square of lady fingers and whipped mascarpone, as light as a cloud yet as rich as that woman who invented Harry Potter.
I even like the way Lazzarino plays with truffle oil. Yes, there, I’ve said it. I love truffle oil. I realize it’s unpopular to admit to liking or using truffle oil these days, but frankly I don’t care that it doesn’t actually come from real truffles.
Yes, I know, it’s just olive oil with the addition of a lab compound that matches (quite precisely, I might add) the very molecule that gives real truffles their distinctive aroma and flavor. Would the real thing from Alba taste better? In most cases, maybe. But that’s a luxury very few chefs outside of Las Vegas can afford, so when I’m presented with a $15 pizza with Italian ham, mozzarella and walnuts that tastes even more delicious because the chef has added a few drops of truffle oil, I’m not going to diss it. I’m going to devour it.
If it tastes great, it tastes great. And the pizzas here have never been better than they are right now, with Lazzarino at the helm.
Osteria La Buca
5210 Melrose Ave., L.A., 323.462.1900, osterialabuca.com
Hours Lunch, Tues.–Fri., ???11:30am–2:30pm; dinner, ???Tues.–Thur., 5:30pm–10:30pm; Fri.–Sat., 5:30pm–11pm; ???Sun., 5pm–10pm
What the stars mean:
0 = Poor, unacceptable
* = Fair, some noteworthy qualities
** = Good, above average
*** = Very good, well above norm
**** = Excellent, among the area’s best
***** = Extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.
Who’s there: Paramount honchos, house flippers, empty nesters on date night and dudes who wear hats at night
Where to sit: Upstairs is great when the weather is nice but can get frigid on a winter night if you’re not sitting directly in front of the fireplace; otherwise, the far right corner downstairs offers the best people-watching.
About the noise warning: When the place is packed, it’s as loud as a Metallica concert.
What it costs: Appetizers, $6–$17; pizza and pasta, $8–$18; entrées, $17–$40; desserts, $6–$10; valet parking $7