Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Lowdown: Osteria La Buca

Buona sera! Voglio fare una prenotazione per stasera. Speak those two Italian lines when calling Osteria La Buca for reservations, and you'll discover your favorite new restaurant in Los Angeles. Mamma and her boys could not be happier that you stopped by their tiny place (does 7 tables crammed into a New York City -kitchen-sized space qualify?) on your way to Paramount Studios, and finally decided to sit down and enjoy the kind of intimate, leisurely meal that the Italians have defined. I was immediately transported back to the Old Country: The walls are decorated with posters of classic Italian films and a fan lazily swirls above hungry heads. When something isn't going right in the restaurant, they don't fake it. On a recent visit the espresso maker had a mind of its own and was plastered with a note, "Gone to espresso machine heaven."

Perhaps the reason why La Buca feels just like home is that you are dining in Mamma's kitchen. No, really. The kitchen is in full view to most, glowing behind a small bar towards the back of the restaurant. La Buca is so small, that it is impossible to tune out the melodious, fast-paced Italian spoken at a table nearby, or the encouragement from the waiters as they say, "Oh, very good choice!" to a diner only an arm's reach away. But why would you want to ignore it all? Everyone is having a great time enjoying an interesting conversation over a bottle
of wine (that they brought themselves. It's BYOB). There is the sense that everyone in the room is taking part in a truly unique L.A. experience, and that they are lucky to be lounging in Mamma's domain. It is a little bit of Padua in our very own Los Angeles.

La Buca boasts a menu that takes longer to choose from than it does to go from the Westside to the Eastside during rush hour. Oooohs and aaaaahs of "that sounds good" and "I'm getting that. Final decision. Wait, no. This?" are inevitable. Everything sounds good, because everything is good. The specials change daily, but it would be a crime to leave without trying the burrata antipasto. Creamy does not do this homemade mozzarella justice. The cheese has a texture that will make your eyes roll to the back of your head. So perfectly seasoned with salt, pepper, and olive oil, and accompanied with Italian meats and arugula, the antipasto is not to be missed. Le insalate, or salads, are supremely simple and fresh. The tricolore arrives with radicchio, endive, arugula, and generous shavings of parmesan.

And the pasta: La Buca pasta changes lives. Mamma makes it all fresh every single day, and her tender treatment of every ingredient shows in the incredible piatti. Pasta is offered "a piacere," so diners first choose a pasta from a list of chitarrine, trenette, tagliatelle, pappardelle, gnocchi, or ravioli with ricotta cheese and spinach. Next come the sauces. A note on the menu exclaims, "Don't get Mamma upset asking to change her sauces." There is no tolerance for taking the meat out here, or adding onions there. It just doesn't jive at La Buca. Savor the sauces as Mamma intended and you will not be sorry. Le salse include pomodoro, amatriciana, pesto, arrabbiata (spicy tomato), carbonara, vodka, bolognese, boscaiola (mushrooms, peas, and ham in a cream sauce), fumê (a decadent pink sauce with oregano, onions, bacon, and Scamorza cheese), burro e salvia (butter and sage), and finally a mushroom cream sauce, ai funghi. The pastas range from $11-$15 and are unlike any other pasta in the city. A pasta special of trenette al tartufo combines earthy mushrooms and rich truffle oil. The secondi piatti features meat and fish. Tagliata, sliced Piedmontese steak served on a bed of arugula and gorgonzola was available, as well as a halibut fillet baked in foil with olives, cherry tomatoes, and rosemary. Mamma uses few ingredients to compose Italian symphonies of the plate. There is a large pizza selection as well as a choice of 6 panini ($8-9) available for lunch only.

Non ci sono le parole per la tiramisù. There are no words for the tiramisu. Served in a rustic wooden bowl, the dessert elevates Mamma to culinary goddess status: She'd knock any Iron Chef to the curb. A thick layer of crème covers her version of this traditional dessert. The sponge cake absorbs the espresso without making it soggy, or overly Starbuck-ified. It is the velvety creme that steals the show. Again, Mamma's simple, yet unparalleled techniques shine through. A thin layer of cocoa is the little black dress to seal the deal. Revel in the relaxed, comfortable atmosphere that has everyone at La Buca smiling. It's like going home for a hearty meal, without having to wash any dishes.

Grazie Mamma. Grazie mille.
—Camilla Warner
5210 1/2 Melrose Ave.
Hollywood, CA 90038
(323) 462-1900