Saturday, March 15, 2008

Osteria Mozza

Recently, we returned to Osteria Mozza for the first time since Marisa somehow snagged a reservation on its opening weekend, when we had an enjoyable dinner (though one with justifiably mixed results). After frequenting the pizzeria regularly after its opening weekend, we ended up ignoring the Mozza twins for the last several months because reservations were impossible to come by and fighting the crowds for bar seating was as pleasant as a morning at the DMV. Then, we received a tip that the frenzy had moved west down Melrose to Comme Ça, where it is possible to reserve a table, but not secure a good meal, or even a table.

Since moving to Los Angeles in 2004, I have managed to suppress my urges for pasta because Italian food here is an object of my personal frustration and resulting derision. As much as I love Italian food--and I truly do--the whole Bill Buford cult of regional Italian cuisine and authenticity is as annoying as pretentious Silverlake espresso shops. (I'm talking to you, LA Mill.) Not only is French food infinitely better, homier, and more interesting, but Joël Robuchon’s Atelier in Paris may be making the best spaghetti carbonara these days. A week ago, though, I wanted some pasta. And going to JR's place in Paris is a hell of a commute.

We took a seat at the mozzarella bar, in direct view of the diffident celebrity chef. Silverton is a marvel to watch. She constantly examines, sniffs, and tastes, and is a model of efficiency and intensity in her preparation of mozzarella bar dishes. She devotes precious time to instructing the younger chefs, stopping often to issue seemingly inaudible diktats to her assistants who miraculously absorb every word. Unlike her extrovert of a partner, she is not interested in superficial banter with her customers, though she seemed happy to discuss the nuances of Italian and Californian burrata. Overall, she, like Quinn Hatfield, and, for that matter, Suthiporn Sungkamee (whose moo nua mae chan Silverton reportedly favors), is a throwback to the pre-Food Network days when chefs focused only on food while big personas with middling talent and creepy laughs did not win made-for-television competitions.

We began with a simple preparation of four deliciously tender pieces of grilled octopus accompanied by a salad of celery and potatoes dressed in lemon. This is a dish I absolutely love. It was great on opening weekend and was just as good on this particular night. It is also superior to Craft’s roasted octopus and Greek yogurt appetizer which does not have the same tenderness or flavor.

From the unwieldly large mozzarella bar menu, we had a less successful take on Campanile’s brilliant pressed autostrada sandwich. Silverton’s adaptation substituted scamorza (a mozzarella cousin, for all intents and purposes) for Peel’s aged provolone, Armandino Batali’s mole salami for Peel's assorted cured meats, and pickled cherry peppers. Silverton’s scarmorza sandwich, like Campanile's, used the device of embedding slices of salami on the exterior of the sandwich (which for all I know Silverton may have actually originated). However, the Silverton/Batali offering was a model of disproportion. Marisa felt that the mole salami, which has a distinctive, spicy taste and is a star in any platter of charcuterie, overwhelmed the sandwich. I arrived at this conclusion from the opposite direction: I thought the cheese smothered the salami and peppers. It’s worth noting that Peel charges $16 for an entrée-sized sandwich that comes with an always excellent salad of greens and frites for the table, while Silverton/Batali charge $14 for a much smaller sandwich accompanied by a tasty, well-dressed arugula salad but sans frites.

The two pasta dishes we shared were solid and faultlessly prepared. At their finest, the Batali pastas are both refined and exquisitely guttural, but Osteria Mozza’s lack this latter element. Marisa had the mezzalune, half-moons filled with butternut squash, topped with crumbled amaretti, and served in a brown butter sage sauce. I had the tasty francobolli di brasato, pasta filled with braised beef and served in a gray butter sauce with thyme. Francobolli are literally translated as “postage stamps,” though the spatial dimensions of the diminutive first class U.S. stamp bore no resemblance to the slightly larger filled pasta. There is no doubt that this pasta was the best I have eaten in Los Angeles though I cannot say that it triggered the desire to eat pasta here with great frequency. What we had was too luxurious and lacked rusticity. On our next visit, I’ll try the amatriciana again (which I struggled to enjoy on the admittedly challenging opening weekend) with the goal of proving myself wrong.

For an entrée, we shared the crispy duck which I devoured. It was the unquestioned highlight of the evening. The kitchen confited and then grilled a breast, thigh, and drumstick under a brick, which allowed the skin to crisp. It was like being back at the old Phil the Fire on Shaker Square, a chicken & waffles joint. The breast was as tender as a confit should be, i.e., not preciously tender, and with the advertised crispy skin. The drumstick may have even been better on account of its greater fat and the ease of eating the meat and skin together. A side of pear mostardo delivered some complex sweetness punctuated not only with a rich pear flavor, but also a little spicy kick moments later. A ramekin of leafy, vinegary brussel sprouts negated the theory that there can never be too much garlic. I would never have expected this theory to be tested in almost an afterthought of a side -- especially considering that the sprouts were cooked in the duck and then in sherry, two dominant flavors. This stuff was acrid.

The espresso was barely potable and had no crema. An expensive 250 ml carafe of a Soave was uninteresting and bland. On the plus side beverage-wise, I discovered the joys of Averna, a Sicilian digestif so fruity, herby, and delightful that I rushed home to order some from K & L (who refers to it as a "bitters"). As long as the Batali chain retains its silly policy of all-Italian wine lists, I’ll gladly pay the corkage fee.

Osteria Mozza
641 N. Highland Ave.
Los Angeles
(323) 297-0101