If you want to know why Vincenti may be the single best Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, you could do worse than to try a plate of burrata and prosciutto, a dish that sounds so dull on paper that I almost stopped my daughter from ordering it the last time I had dinner in the restaurant. Burrata is a kind of cream-stuffed mozzarella that was basically unavailable outside Puglia until the El Monte cheesemaker Gioia started making it a few years ago, but these days it is almost aubiquitous local specialty, available in any Los Angeles Italian restaurant more serious than a sub shop. Prosciutto, while delicious, is one of the most standardized meat products on Earth, cured in enormous buildings that stretch the length of a football field, tens of thousands of hams hanging in strictly regimented rows. Your finest meats and cheeses? Sure. Yawn. Bring me another glass of prosecco.
But Vincenti’s Nicola Mastronardi serves his burrata in a state of freshness that can probably be measured in hours, if not minutes, just cool enough so that the slight acidity of the cheese is refreshing, but warm enough for maximum ooze. The prosciutto, aged 50 percent longer than usual and sliced transparently thin, is arranged in attractive ruffles around the cheese. A few drops of fragrant basil oil are sprinkled over the burrata, not quite enough to assert itself as a separate presence but enough to perfume it, marrying it to the cheesy, gamy sweetness of the meat and the slivers of oven-dried tomato that garnish the plate. Tossed together haphazardly, this dish is business-class airline food. Arranged like this, it is close to art.
Vincenti, of course, isheir to the Art Deco ’80s landmark Rex, which is still probably the most magnificent Italian restaurant ever to exist on American soil. Rex’s maestro was Mauro Vincenti, whose widow Maureen runs this restaurant in his honor, and keeps a photograph of him in a minishrine behind the hostess desk. Mastronardi cooked at Rex in its last months, as second to Gino Angelini, who opened Vincenti and went on to run La Terza and Osteria Angelini, which are both on this list.
Valentino is grander than Vincenti, La Terza flashier, and Giorgio Baldi draws a more famous clientele, but Vincenti feels like the spiritual center of fine Italian cooking in Los Angeles, its hearth. And befitting a hearth, much of the food here comes from the big, hardwood-burning ovens, flavored with the presence of smoke, of forests, stone chimneys and chilly afternoons — a scallop, say, sprinkled with bread crumbs and baked in its shell until it sizzles; a magnificent veal chop; soft curls of cuttlefish tucked into an herb salad; a whole, truffle-laced squab. The adjacent rotisserie turns out the best restaurant version of porchetta I have ever tasted in California — loin and belly are wrapped into a spiral, seasoned with fennel, and spit-roasted to a crackling, licorice-y succulence. It is certainly possible to eat several mediocre Italian meals elsewhere in this neighborhood for the price of a single superb one here. At these times, it is good to remember that on Monday nights, pizza also comes out of these ovens. 11930 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood, (310) 207-0127.
Degustation Non Est Disputandum
My favorite Italian restaurants tend to serve perfected country dishes, rustic vegetables and grilled meats that replicate what a gifted grandmother might prepare for dinner in her Umbrian fireplace. But Angelo Auriano’s food at Valentino is as far from home cooking as any French chef’s: complicated little packets of handkerchief pasta folded around ragouts of braised capon, veal and quail; a delicate risotto, perfectly all’onda, stirred with crunchy minced apple and a pair of tiny veal kidneys; dime-size Mediterranean octopuses in a chile-tinged broth that resonates against the acidity of cold Ligurian wine with a fuzzy bit of sustain Hendrix might have admired. No grandmother is ever going to arrange dense slivers of smoked eel from Lake Garda into a still life with shavings of cerignola olives, garlic cream and a bit of citrus pulp, or scent marinated yellowtail with a few drops of basil oil and seabottom-pungent shavings of dried mullet roe, or stuff agnolotti with wild boar and garnish it with cured pig cheek and fiasco-simmered beans. Valentino has always been one of the most controversial restaurants in Los Angeles, loved by foodies who claim to have eaten the best meals of their lives in the dimly lit dining room and loathed by people who claim that the restaurant is a con job, a stuffy, Amarone-lubricated machine designed to separate fools from their wallets. I have at times fallen into both camps — it can be difficult to coax the best from Valentino, and my two meals there before the last one, eaten at a time when chefs were rotating through the kitchen faster than minimum-wage fry cooks at the local Burger King, were pretty bad. But with the return of Auriano, who presided over the kitchen in its best days, the cooking is once again up to the level of owner Piero Selvaggio’s massive wine list. Suddenly, although Valentino is quite expensive, the $85 tasting menu (and you’re missing the point if you order anything else) seems almost reasonable compared to the $100+ menus at places like Providence, Sona and Ortolan. 3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 829-4313.