Beyond Urban Rustic

Photo by Anne Fishbein

IF YOU’RE WONDERING what the excitement is about at Gino Angelini’s sleek new La Terza, you could do worse than to look at the little pre-appetizer brought out along with the wine list one night in late September. It was a simple dish — a bit of ripe Cherokee tomato cut into a small dice, a few snips of basil, a smear of good balsamic, a fingernail paring of bacon. It was the sort of thing you might see (or make yourself) a dozen or two times in the course of prime tomato season each year, a dish that will never show up in a cookbook. Yet the tomato was perfectly, spurtingly ripe, almost turgid with juice, and had been relieved of its skin in a time-consuming manner that neither bruised nor cooked its flesh. And the impossibly fragrant basil had obviously been shredded to order. The bacon was smoky and of excellent quality: Everyone at the table searched the little bowls for a second sliver, which wasn’t there, its absence creating a hunger in the exact shape of the dinner to come.

You will never find a dish exactly like this in Italy, where smoked bacon tends to be pretty rare, where this particular kind of heirloom tomato doesn’t exist, where balsamic vinegar would be unusual outside the Modena area. The context, the form of the dish, may be distinctly Italian, but it is not “authentic” in any sense of the word, and the exact sensation being alluded to — a late-summer BLT, I would guess — is as American as apple pie.

There is an entire school of cooking sometimes called Urban Rustic or Cal-Ital, but this isn’t that — although dishes like cool, sliced veal tongue slicked with puréed herbs; a thick, smoky grilled rib steak served with rice-size beans from Umbria; or a salad of the Etruscan grain farro with pecorino cheese certainly qualify. What Angelini is attempting at La Terza may be no less than re-imagining California food through the prism of his advanced Italian technique, re-imagining California as an Italian province that happens to have a few agricultural virtues of its own.

When the late Mauro Vincenti installed Angelini behind the stoves at Rex nearly a decade ago, he was already an accomplished chef in Italy, a genius of the stockpots who brought with him an individual Italian cuisine quite unlike anything else that had been served in Los Angeles: earthy sauces thickened with vegetable purées instead of cream; herbal tinctures of almost unbelievable complexity; tuna cooked all the way through. Together with Vincenti, he swept the menu of the last cobwebs of the nuova cucina for which the restaurant had been renowned, and set about creating a grand country restaurant in the urban, Lalique-encrusted dining room, with sizzling spit-roasted meats, whole fish boned at the table, and pastas tossed tableside in great copper dishes. It was a high point of Italian cooking in the United States.

Vincenti took ill and died shortly into Angelini’s term, and when Rex’s lease wasn’t renewed, the chef followed Vincenti’s widow, Maureen, to the sleek restaurant Vincenti, which was from the beginning less a palace of cuisine like Rex than it was a modern Italian restaurant, like the ones you see in the affluent residential suburbs of Rome and Milan. The kitchen wasn’t quite Rex, but Angelini’s house-cured guanciale, fresh mozzarella with mullet roe, roasted meats and signature tagliolini were wonderful. Vincenti remains a fine restaurant, years after he left.

I am almost alone, I think, in my lack of affection for his next restaurant, Angelini Osteria, a popular, reasonably priced café with reasonable versions of Roman trattoria classics like saltimbocca, spaghetti carbonara and pollo alla diavola. I go to the Osteria when I want a decent scottadito or plate of carbonara, like everyone else, but I’ve always thought of it as a restaurant without passion. Where owners of the best osterie in Italy seem to find a sense of purpose in the great classics, repeating a dish over and over because it is part of the living fabric of civilization, Angelini is basically a creative chef, a guy who likes to put his stamp on things.

And La Terza feels like Angelini’s own restaurant in a way the Osteria never quite did, perfumed by a wood-fired rotisserie at one end of the restaurant, and lubricated by a sharp wine list put together by former Campanile maitre d’ Claudio Trotta. It even looks Italian, although the slightly awkward dimensions in Italy tend to be forced by the restrictions imposed by ancient buildings, while La Terza’s odd angles were imposed by the dimensions of the nightclubbish restaurant Cava, whose space it occupies.

Angelini has served guanciale-wrapped monkfish since his earliest days in Los Angeles, and it surfaces again here; fat rounds of the fish, still a little gelatinous, are wrapped in crisp, parchment-thin strips of the cured pork cheek, seasoned simply with pepper and salt, served on top of a sunchoke purée where you might expect potatoes. His other signatures are here too: roasted sole with thyme; beets with Gorgonzola and walnuts. Firm, cool slivers of smoked sea bass are arranged over a bed of mache dressed in a citrus vinaigrette, then smeared with bottarga, dried cod roe, which has a powerful, sweet-salty fishiness. I loved an untraditional preparation of grilled cuttlefish cut into petals and served with bitter radicchio moistened with saba, which is more or less the fetal version of balsamic vinegar.

Pastas may not be a priority here — that would be the tremendous rotisserie meats — but they are among the best in town at the moment: stiff little ravioli stuffed with a bracingly bitter dose of grilled radicchio, soft corkscrews with a mint-infused lamb ragout, pappardelle with an almost chocolatey sauce made with braised veal cheeks. The tagiolini here, tossed with shrimp and lemon, have a superb, springy texture, almost alive under your teeth.

And look at those meats: glistening, woodsmoke-infused slabs of pork belly stuffed with fennel and dill; drippingly rich duck with orange; mahogany-skinned squab enveloping a rich stuffing of shiitake mushrooms flavored with strong herbs. Sometimes there are big pork shanks braised to a surpassing softness and served with a final dusting of chopped pistachio nuts that turn out to add just the right amount of sweetness to the dish.

La Terza is not yet the best restaurant in Los Angeles. A salad of chickpeas and corn was kind of pointless, like something you might put together yourself at a salad bar. And the desserts, although the recipes come from Nancy Silverton, are not quite together yet — the pastry cream in a torta della nonna last week tasted of uncooked flour, and the olive-oil ice cream with sea salt, a specialty of the New York restaurant Otto, was oddly bland, although the ricotta fritters with sour cherries are reliably delicious.

But still, who needs dessert when you can have Angelini’s trifolati, a traditional Italian kidney stew that he garnishes with fried sweetbreads. What we’re talking about, for those less versed in innard cookery, is a dish of crisply sautéed cattle pancreas on a bed of renal fragments. But those fragments, the kidneys, melted down in warm olive oil and simmered in wine, are sensational — funky, yes, but delicately chewy and with a depth of flavor scarcely imaginable to those who confine their palates to conventional meats, and a glossy refinement that is only heightened by the last-minute scattering of fresh herbs. In Viareggio, trifolati may just be a Thursday lunch special. In Los Angeles, a couple of blocks from the Beverly Center, it is a revelation.

La Terza, 8384 W. Third St.; (323) 782-8384. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., dinner Mon.–Fri. 5:30–11 p.m., brunch Sat.–Sun. 10 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $58–$96.

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