Chi Spacca Review: Artistry Well Beyond the Butcher's Block
Photo by Anne Fishbein
By the time your waiter has finished telling you about the folklore of the focaccia di Recco at Chi Spacca, you might stop wondering why you paid $18 for a piece of bread. It's a very large, very round piece of bread, the size and shape of a medium pizza, but still, $18 is more than you'll pay for a pizza with fennel sausage and red onions around the corner at sister restaurant Pizzeria Mozza.
Yet the poetry of the waiter's focaccia spiel is as comforting as a bedtime story: Many moons ago, Nancy (she is always called "Nancy," not "our incredibly famous and respected chef-owner Nancy Silverton" because everyone already knows who Nancy is — that's half of why we're here, duh) discovered this focaccia in Recco, a small town near Genoa, Italy, and she swore to herself that she would serve this very bread at Chi Spacca. She returned to the States and, along with chef Chad Colby, set about trying to re-create it. It took two years, a few trips back to Recco, special imported hand-hammered copper pans, a stracchino cheese made specifically for the project, and some technical stuff about stones in ovens and types of flour. But now, finally, here it is. Focaccia di Recco.
I have heard the lengthy focaccia di Recco fable three times now, but I never tire of it. It's a good story, the servers tell it with so much pride you cannot resist their enthusiasm, and it comes with the best ending of all, which is the bread itself. Thin and crispy in places, soft and stretchy in others, it delivers the pure joy of simple flour, olive oil and dairy when they meet heat. It's primal — this focaccia is so good because it tastes of generous sustenance and nothing else. It is worth every single one of those 1,800 pennies.
The focaccia di Recco is certainly now one of Chi Spacca's signature dishes, but the place is better known for its ardent devotion to all kinds of animal protein. This is a restaurant born of meat, built from the ground up on a foundation of salumi and tomahawk chops.
The small space on the side of the Mozza compound, which also houses Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza, originally was a space used for catering and classes, a "Scuola di Pizza" conceived of by Mario Batali, Silverton's business partner along with Joe Bastianich. Colby was brought on as the chef, leading the pizza- and pasta-making classes, overseeing the catering operation and hosting limited-seating dinners in the space, including a weekly whole-hog meal, which quickly gained acclaim. It was only the first of Colby's many meaty gifts to the city.
During all this a passion project emerged: Colby dedicated himself to learning everything he could about charcuterie. At that time, it was not actually legal in Los Angeles County to make charcuterie in-house, and Colby worked with the health department to change those laws and become the first to make and serve aged meats on premises. From that sprang his Thursday salumi nights, one night of the week that the space opened up and acted like a regular restaurant, with a focus on the charcuterie Colby was producing.
That, too, gained a following. And Silverton et al. realized that Colby's meat-focused cooking, which was (and remains) very rooted in Italian traditions, fit into the Mozza family as more than a school and pop-up space.
It's been almost two years since Chi Spacca emerged as its own restaurant, the smallest and most intimate of the Mozza empire, with dark wood, wine-lined walls and a fully open kitchen that was designed as a stage for a cooking school.
Colby is still serving all that fantastic charcuterie that he presented during his salumi nights, but he has broadened the menu to include other meaty treasures. There are echoes of his fan-favorite whole-hog dinners in the milk-roasted pork loin with sage, the dish that traditionally ended the savory portion of those meals. But other, new dishes have gained cultlike status, such as a hulking beef and bone marrow pie, from the center of which a giant marrow bone protrudes. You break open the pie, its thick crust rich with butter, and watch the dark beef in gravy with mushrooms pool on the plate. Scoop some marrow from the bone and smear it on top — rich on rich on rich.
Photo by Anne Fishbein
It's easy here to overload on meat; in fact, it's practically a foregone conclusion once you've taken your seat. You must start with a charcuterie plate, which presents tangy, vibrant goat salami but also lush "pork butter" in a jar topped with the most delicious cap of pure silken pork fat. You'll be advised to scrape it off, and your doctor surely would concur, but your soul will thank you for spreading a bit on some bread when no one's looking.
Nor will you be disappointed if you opt to go the fish route, and, in fact, you may leave feeling a little less leaden than the rest of us. Colby's talent with an open flame extends to his whole branzino, as well as the amberjack spiedino, large hunks of buttery fish on a metal skewer, showered with herbs, separated by rolled-up zucchini and topped with a grilled lemon.
But to get to the heart of this restaurant, you may as well just give in and buy the big hunk of cow.
Colby serves two of the city's most expensive steaks here, a 42-ounce, $175 costata alla Fiorentina and a 50-ounce, $210 bistecca Fiorentina. I am often baffled as to what separates a truly great steak from one that's more ordinary — I have had both at expensive restaurants, aged and sourced with extreme care. But whatever magic it takes, Colby has in spades. These steaks are some of Los Angeles' great special-occasion dishes, the char and blood and tang of them so memorable that months later I can call the sense memory to the corners of my mouth.
As much as I love the grandeur of Osteria Mozza, the pastas and the mozzarella bar, and as much as Pizzeria Mozza remains a paragon of immaculately presented casual California dining, Chi Spacca has been my favorite of the Mozza experiences through all of its transitions. Over the past couple of years that has only become more clear, and it can be largely explained by that focaccia and the speech that accompanies it. There's the obvious artistry and obsession that come with spending two years trying to re-create a piece of bread, the drive for perfection that fuels all of what Silverton and Colby do. But the long explanation from the waiters would be tiresome and rote at other restaurants, forced cheerleading or smarmy salesmanship. Here it's genuine and engaging, a mark of servers who seem thrilled to be here sharing this food with you. That attitude permeates every interaction with the staff, who are so assured and convivial it makes me want to secretly videotape them and distribute the results to floor managers everywhere as training material.
And there's Colby, who has been working the line with meditative focus every single time I've eaten at the restaurant over the years, treating each piece of meat like a prize as he pulls it from the heat. His food should be considered a prize. We win.
See also: Our photo gallery from Chi Spacca
CHI SPACCA | Four stars | 6610 Melrose Ave., Hancock Park | 323-297-1133 | chispacca.com | Mon.-Fri., 6-11 p.m., Sat., 5-11 p.m., Sun., 5-10 p.m. | Entrees, $22-$210 | Beer and wine served | Valet parking
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.