The future of Italian cuisine has arrived. And while it’s nothing short of a revolution in Los Angeles, it’s a movement that has mostly evaded Orange County.
It used to be that if you went out for Italian cuisine, you knew what to expect. You knew before you got there exactly what you would be eating: Caprese salad, fried calamari, bruschetta with tomato and basil, arancini in marinara sauce, spaghetti and meatballs, linguine and clams (in which the clams too often came from a can), chicken Parmigiania, veal Milanese, tiramisu …
Restaurants bent over backwards to conjure romantic images of Sophia Loren, Federico Fellini and Frank Sinatra. Tables were always set with bottles of Italian olive oil. Waiters offered Parmesan cheese with everything, even the fish. And while that’s still pretty much the norm in Orange County – with some exceptions, see the list of Top 10 local Italian restaurants below – it’s become a different scene entirely in Los Angeles.
A brief history
The earliest signs of change began more than a decade ago. Years before New York chef Mario Batali joined forces with L.A.’s Nancy Silverton to blow the lid off Italian cooking at Pizzeria and Osteria Mozza, a fresh-faced young chef named Salvatore Marino at a restaurant called Il Grano had already infiltrated the Japanese fish market and introduced the Westside to something called crudo, Italy’s version of sashimi, which was just a novelty back then.
At the time it seemed like the young Marino was rebelling against his family’s roots: He grew up in Naples, the Italian port city that invented pizza. His father, Ciro, ran one of L.A.’s most esteemed red-sauce Italian restaurants, Marino. But the next-generation chef shunned spaghetti and meatballs in favor of raw sea urchin and monkfish liver. He did so on the fringes of L.A.’s Italian restaurant scene for the next 10 years before most foodies really understood what he was doing, which was getting back to his coastal Neapolitan roots, cooking locally and embracing Italy’s history of slow food and head-to-tail cooking. He introduced Los Angeles to porchetta, a labor-intensive pork dish that’s been around for centuries but had been largely abandoned by American restaurants from the beginning. For an entire decade, Il Grano was more or less a lone wolf.
Even after the Batali/Silverton invasion of late 2006, little else changed. It wasn’t until 2011 that everything started to shift. That was the year chefs Michael Samson and Zach Pollack decamped from Costa Mesa’s Pizzeria Ortica to open Sotto in West L.A., where they introduced a far more authentic version of Southern Italian cuisine than just about any other restaurant on the West Coast. They hired an oven builder from Naples to construct their wood-fired, 900-degree pizza oven. Although they weren’t the first chefs in Los Angeles. to serve authentic Neapolitan pizza, they were the ones who kick-started that trend. And while their menu was still dominated by pasta and tomato sauce, it felt remarkably foreign. There was no spaghetti and meatballs. No fettuccine carbonara. No linguine and clams. They served chittara with squid and breadcrumbs. They tossed hand-rolled fileja with a spicy pork ragu and fennel pollen. They introduced casarecce with braised lamb and a poached egg. It still sounds somewhat foreign.
That was also the year that chef Jason Neroni – an Orange County native who earlier came of age as an apprentice cook at Disneyland’s Club 33 before embarking on a decade-long tour of some of the world’s most esteemed kitchens – joined Osteria La Buca. The quirky little Italian restaurant on Melrose had recently undergone an interior revamp. It was a controversial takeover.
La Buca’s original chef had built a fierce local following, and her immediate replacement hadn’t lasted very long, so the pressure was on. Neroni threw out all the old recipes and introduced an unprecedented (for Los Angeles) focus of making pasta and salumi from scratch. He topped his pizzas with lardo and garlic confit. He stuffed agnolotti with corn from the farmers market and topped it off with fresh Dungeness crab from Northern California.
It was new, but it felt more like Italy than anything that had come before it. Osteria La Buca soared. Neroni eventually left La Buca and blazed through a number of high-profile projects, including Superba Snack Bar. He created the menu at Costa Mesa’s Pie Society. He’s currently off the radar, plotting a mysterious new venture with restaurateur/kingmaker Bill Chait that is expected to debut in Los Angeles next year.
It was the perfect storm, the convergence of locavorism and the rediscovery of head-to-tail cooking combined with the inaccesibility of Mozza: Getting a table at Mozza was then still practically impossible. The city was over-saturated with traditional red-sauce Italian joints, and the Mozza crowd wasn’t looking at any of those old-timers as an alternative.
In 2011, Pizzeria Mozza also opened an offshoot in Newport Beach. And in the spring of 2012, chef David Pratt opened Brick in San Clemente, which instantly became one of the most important restaurants in Orange County. Nobody else in South County was coming anywhere close to the sort of snout-to-tail cooking that Pratt undertakes daily. He buys a whole hog or two every week to break down into sausages, chops, meatballs and porchetta. You won’t find a better meatball anywhere.
Today’s key players
A shotgun succession of fabulous new restaurants has followed in L.A., each one writing a new chapter in the playbook about what it means to go out for Italian. It used to be that if an Italian restaurant served a plate of salami, they bought the sausage from a purveyor based in Italy, or maybe Seattle (where Mario Batali’s father runs a famous salumeria). These days, they make it themselves.
Ori Menashe, who trained with Gino Angelini for years and helped cement Osteria Angelini’s standing as one of L.A.’s all-time greatest restaurants, branched out on his own last year, with partner/financier Bill Chait, to open Bestia. Their choice of locale seemed surprising at first, a few blocks from skid row in downtown’s mostly derelict warehouse district. But it was an instant hit. Menashi makes dozens of varieties of salumi, head cheese and house-cured hams. He dry-ages his own Florence-style T-bone steaks in a specially designed climate-control locker in full view of the dining room. He raises his own yeast for the pizza dough. Reservations were nearly unattainable during Bestia’s first six months. A year and a half later, it hasn’t gotten any easier.
Meanwhile, Batali and Silverton flexed their muscles yet again by adding a third restaurant to their compound in Los Angeles, Chi Spacca, whose chef/butcher Chad Colby pushed the Mozza collective back into the forefront (or at the very least, kept them from being left behind). Close your eyes as you taste the bistecca Fiorentina at Chi Spacca, with a glass of extraordinary Barolo in hand, and you’ll swear you are in Florence.
Chef Evan Funke gave up a successful post at Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon to launch Bucato in Culver City, where he, too, turned his attention to Italian cuisine. And although the cacio e pepe and bucatini carbonara on his menu sound somewhat more familiar than dishes in some of the other new Italian restaurants, those classic preparations are similar in name only. Funke makes all of his pastas by hand, like a stubborn old grandma in the Italian countryside, with nothing more than a rolling pin and a knife. No machines. The cacio e pepe (Roman-style pasta simply dressed with cheese and black pepper) is such a revelation that chefs in Rome should take note.
Simple, old-fashioned pastas provide epiphanies at Union in Pasadena and Scarpetta in Beverly Hills, too, where at either place the spaghetti with tomato sauce will blow your mind. It’s so incredibly basic yet ethereally moving. To eat spaghetti at these places is to discover it for the first time. At Union, Kalman even makes his own butter, inspired by Northern Italy. He spends hours in the kitchen every week just making porchetta; his is now the version to beat.
As the head waiter at Wolfgang Puck’s renowned Beverly Hills steakhouse Cut, Matteo Ferdinandi saw first-hand how modernizing an old-fashioned concept can pay off. No doubt this was on his mind as he and chef Angelo Auriana opened The Factory Kitchen downtown, just a few blocks from Bestia. Auriana perhaps never really garnered the respect he deserved at Santa Monica’s Valentino. Maybe that’s because Valentino – now more than 40 years old – was hampered with too many decades of tradition and legacy.
His cooking today at Factory feels remarkably fresh and original, yet it is firmly rooted in Italy’s past. He serves a pasta called mandilli de seta, which is a single, vast sheet of homemade pasta as light and expansive as a silk scarf, gently tossed with a bright-green almond pesto that has the velvety texture of finely filtered cream.
Earlier this year Sotto’s Pollack branched out with a solo effort in Silver Lake called Alimento, a loud, glass-framed cinderblock shell of a restaurant. Pollack deftly weaves together the old and the new. He pairs squid-ink radiatore with red-wine-braised squid and mussels. He tosses fusilli with cockles, fava leaves, serrano chilies and house-smoked butter. He serves a football-sized pork shank family-style on a cutting board with rosemary fried potatoes. Pollack’s cuisine in an ambience like Alimento’s would have been unimaginable in Southern California 10 years ago.
The latest newcomer to the scene is Tin Vuong, chef/owner of Wildcraft in Culver City, which started as a pizzeria but recently reinvented itself as a full-on new-Italian restaurant with kegs of red wine on tap. Vuong has been all over the map lately, having recently opened the wildly successful Abigail and Little Sister in Manhattan Beach, neither of which are Italian. He grew up on Asian cuisine in the San Gabriel Valley before launching his career in Orange County at the St. Regis Monarch Beach followed by Sapphire in Laguna. His menu at Wildcraft, a collaboration with chef Bryant Wigger, holds its own against all the others, and then some. They serve “lambchetta,” which is like porchetta, but made with lamb. It is rich and fatty and savory and crispy all at once, and it is absolutely incredible.
And the revolution continues. Vic Casanova, the chef behind the ever-charming Gusto (and Culina before that), two weeks ago opened the doors on a new Italian steakhouse called Pistola in the former A.O.C. space on Third Street in Mid-City. Want to dine there? Plan on reserving at least two, maybe three, weeks in advance.
Still to come is a place called Barberia, from restaurateur Adam Fleischman (of Umami Burger and 800 Degrees Pizza fame) and Milan-raised chef Walter el Nagar, who have secured a location in downtown for a modern Italian restaurant with an omakase-style tasting menu inspired by Italy.
Up next for Orange County? Well, that remains to be seen. But the seeds have certainly been planted.
LA’s Top 15 Italian Restaurants
The scene: Industrial-chic celebrity magnet in downtown’s Arts District. You’ll know you’ve made it if you can score a seat on the balcony.
The chefs: Ori Menashi and Genevieve Gergis
What to order: salumi, veal tartare, steak, lamb neck, 22-oz pork chop
2121 7th Place, L.A., 213-514-5724, bestiala.com
2. Chi Spacca
The scene: Dark and intimate, with merely a dozen tables and an open kitchen grill. The scent of charred meat hangs heavily in the air.
The chefs: Chad Colby, Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali
What to order: bistecca Fiorentina, pane bianco w/ nduja
6610 Melrose Ave, L.A., 323-297-1133, chispacca.com
The scene: Minimalist wood and glass architecture inside the historic Helms Bakery complex. No cell phones allowed; taking pictures of your food is strictly forbidden.
The chef: Evan Funke
What to order: cacio e pepe, bucatini carbonara, baked eggs (brunch)
3280 Helms Ave, Culver City, 310-876-0286, bucato.la
The scene: Urban rustic minimalism, with room for only about 50 people, in the heart of Old Town Pasadena.
The chefs: Bruce Kalman and Crystal Espinoza
What to order: porchetta, squid ink garganelli, gianduja chocolate budino
37 E. Union Street, Pasadena, 626-795-5841, unionpasadena.com
5. Factory Kitchen
The scene: Sprawling industrial warehouse overseen by consummate host and Spago/Cut veteran Matteo Ferdinandi.
The chef: Angelo Auriana
What to order: mandilli de seta (handkerchief pasta) with pesto; pizzata with tomato, capers and anchovy.
1300 Factory Place, L.A., 213-996-6000, thefactorykitchen.com
6. Osteria Mozza
The scene: Loud rock ’n’ roll and a centerpiece mozzarella bar. A wine-lover’s dream.
The chefs: Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali, Matt Molina and Dahlia Narvaez
What to order: buricotta, ricotta and egg raviolo, cedar-smoked sea trout, butterscotch budino
6602 Melrose Ave., L.A., 323-297-0100, osteriamozza.com
The scene: Hushed celebrity glamour inside the posh Montage Beverly Hills hotel.
The chefs: Scott Conant and Freddy Vargas
What to order: Tuna crudo, spaghetti, chocolate cake with burnt-orange caramel gelato
225 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, 310-860-7970, scottconant.com
The scene: Bustling open kitchen with a wood-fired oven in the heart of Culver City’s restaurant row.
The chefs: Tin Vuong and Bryant Wigger
What to order: lambchetta, handmade pici with pork jowl and slow-poached egg, fruit tart
9725 Culver Blvd, Culver City, 310-815-8100, osteriamozza.com
9. Il Grano
The scene: Refined casual luxury with no attitude a stellar Italian wine list.
The chef: Salvatore Marino
What to order: crudo, uni, oyster, rabbit milanese, chef’s tasting menu
11359 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., 310-477-7886, ilgrano.com
The scene: Dimly lit basement hideaway with a wood-fired oven.
Chefs: Steve Samson and Zach Pollack
What to order: spaghetti with spicy octopus ragu; seared lamb belly with beans and fried artichokes; Margherita pizza
9575 W. Pico Blvd., LA, 310-277-0210, sottorestaurant.com
The scene: Charming, dark and romantic with white tablecloths and only 38 seats.
The chef: Vic Casanova
What to order: fried baby artichokes, figs and burrata, black spaghetti
8432 W. 3rd St., L.A., 323-7821778, gusto-la.com
The scene: Stark art-gallery-like interior packed elbow-to-elbow. Bring earplugs. The noise level is deafening.
Chef: Zach Pollack
What to order: radiatore with dried tomatoes, mussels and squid, family-style pork shank
1710 Silver Lake Blvd, L.A., 323-928-2888
The scene: Sleek and modern hideaway tucked into the Four Seasons. Lush outdoor patio. Unmatched crudo bar.
The chef: Mette Williams
What to order: raw fish, red snapper tartare, bone marrow, rack of pork, affogato with cotton candy
300 S. Doheny Drive, Los Angeles, 310-860-4000, culinarestaurant.com
14. Osteria Angelini
The scene: Cramped like sardines with the scent of wood smoke in the air.
The chef: Gino Angelini
What to order: veal kidney, porchetta, Margherita pizza
7313 Beverly Blvd., L.A., 323-297-0070, osteriaangelini.com
The scene: Sexy, see-and-be-seen indoor/outdoor dining on the Sunset Strip with tableside risotto.
The chefs: Luigi Fineo and Gino Angelini
What to order: sea bream crudo, herb-cured pork belly, lemon-basil fettuccine, risotto
9201 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 310-278-2060, innovativedining.com
OC’s Top 10 Italian Restaurants
The scene: Exposed brick walls, recycled wood tables and a light sea breeze, with an open kitchen and wood-fired oven.
The chef: David Pratt
What to order: wood-fired meatballs, Margherita pizza, steamed clams with housemade sausage and chitarra pasta, chocolate budino
216 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949-429-1199, brickpizzeria.com
The scene: Old World glamour with indoor palm trees and views of the golf course and ocean. The perfect date-night for millionaires.
The chef: Marco Criscuolo
What to order: Wagyu beef carpaccio, tableside risotto, lemon-fennel tagliolini with crab, housemade gelato
The Resort at Pelican Hill, 22701 Pelican Hill Road, Newport Beach, pelicanhill.com
3. Pizzeria Mozza
The scene: Loud music, great wine, an exact replica of the L.A. original, but with much fancier cars in the valet.
The chefs: Emily Corliss with Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali, Matt Molina and Dahlia Narvaez
What to order: caprese salad, fennel sausage pizza, butterscotch budino
800 W. Coast Hwy, Newport Beach, 949-945-1126, pizzeriamozza.com
The scene: Rustic, airy, wine-country-inspired loft with a view of the chef’s garden and mini vineyard.
The chef: Massimo Navarretta
What to order: porchetta, bistecca Fiorentina, veal and prawn risotto, limoncello cheesecake
2831 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, onotria.com
5. Sapori Ristorante
The scene: Intimate Old-World dining room with a covered patio anchored by an outdoor fireplace.
The chef: Sal Maniaci
What to order: beef carpaccio, linguine and clams, off-menu veal chop, tiramisu
1080 Bayside Dr, Newport Beach, 949-644-4220, saporinb.com
The scene: Cozy street-side patio on the PCH with a massive wood-fired oven perfuming the air with pizza smoke.
The chef: Alessandro Pirozzi
What to order: wild Caledonian prawns, Margherita pizza, gemelli ugo (chili-infused pasta with octopus and bone marrow)
2929 E. Coast Hwy, Corona del Mar, 949-675-2932, pirozzicdm.com
7. Il Barone
The scene: Charming and comfortable refuge for power lunches and date night. Be prepared for a hug from the owners.
The chef: Franco Barone
What to order: facci ri veccia, octopus and beans, spaghetti carbonara, veal Milanese
4251 Martingale Way, Newport Beach, 949-955-2755, ilbaroneristorante.com
8. Filomena’s Italian Kitchen
The scene: Unassuming, no-frills shoebox-sized restaurant with only 30 seats and the occasional live music act.
The chef: Linda English
What to order: pappardelle Bolognese, lobster ravioli, spicy pepperoni pizza
2400 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, 949-642-3810, facebook.com/Filomenasoc
The scene: Hipster hangout at The Camp with wood-fired pizza and bargain-price wines.
The chef: Carlos Abarca
What to order: burrata with pear and prosciutto, pizza diavola, bruschetta with figs
The Camp, 2937 Bristol St., Cost Mesa, 714-444-3226, eccopizza.com
10. Quattro Caffe
The scene: Understated elegance tucked between Emporio Armani and Jimmy Choo at South Coast Plaza.
The chef: Miriam Ramirez
What to order: beef carpaccio, spaghetti Bolognese, linguine with clams
South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St, Costa Mesa, 714-754-0300, quattrocaffee.com
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To arrive at these lists, I dined at nearly 40 Italian restaurants in OC and almost 50 in LA. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.