Not Just a Mamas Boy
Wednesday is oxtail night at Angelini Osteria. Our waiter, stern, handsome and a bit sardonic, recommends them -- like many of the dishes here, he says, the recipe comes from the chef‘s mother -- but then, we wanted them anyway. It’s a chilly autumn night and nothing sounds better than a rich, long-cooked ragu. The stew itself is everything we hoped for, one of those perfect dishes with its roots in home cooking (in this case, a home rife with genius cooking genes), but prepared by a chef who‘s cooked in many of the world’s finest Italian restaurants (among them, downtown L.A.‘s Ristorante Rex and, most recently, Vincenti in Brentwood).
Indeed, this osteria, the longtime dream of Gino Angelini, is the kind of dream dreamed by chefs and avid restaurant-goers alike: a clattery, urban cafe serving homey food cooked by a master at midrange (well, upper midrange) prices. Eating here, there’s a sense of excitement, as if a great, concentrated city is humming outside. When the place fills up, which it does often, runners squeeze through the tables as waiters carve veal shanks or filet branzini tableside, and the din is intense, what with everyone conversing at the top of their lungs. It‘s full of light and energy and fun. And the food is so good. The menu may look small, but decisions are thrillingly difficult to make.
In serving simpler food than he did at Vincenti, it might seem at first that Angelini has downshifted his culinary ambitions, but his cooking abilities are entrenched and his attention to detail -- and his savvy about such details -- is clearly reflexive and ever apparent.
Pizzas are cracker-thin and painted in strong but balanced flavors. I loved the Gorgonzola pizza for its pools of sharp flavor lurking under the milder mozzarella and in the fresh tomato sauce. Share one as an hors d’oeuvre for the table so you can order more appetizers.
Malfattini, tiny grainlike bits of pasta, come in a thick soup with borlotti beans so plump and velvety they‘re a borderline illicit pleasure to eat. A big bowl of mussels and clams in broth comes with grilled slabs of oil-brushed bread -- bruschetta -- whose precise degree of char from the grill ignites the sweetness of the shellfish. Porcini risotto, a special, is a wonderful play between mild broth-infused al dente rice and the slippery, pungent mushrooms. Translucent slices of smoked sea bass with bottarga (dried roe) and shaved beets may be a more refined dish, but it’s no less soulful or sensuous, what with the oceanic saltiness of the fish and roe playing off the earthy sweet beets.
Codfish stewed in tomatoes with potatoes, pearl onions and golden raisins is another hearty mother-sent special, more homey than haute. But did Mama Angelini devise the extraordinary cuttlefish that‘s cut in thin, wing-like flaps (in shape and look not unlike the alabaster fixtures floating overhead), which curl and cup prettily when roasted so as to be filled with the savory juice of sauteed chard and tomatoes? It’s a brilliant dish, profoundly flavorful, beautiful, yet simple -- and served with more of that sublimely charred bruschetta. Veal shank, carved with some frustration from the bone by a waiter with a dull, too-big knife, is cool by the time it‘s on the plate, but it’s tender, and also gamy in that way that some veal is -- an acquired taste for some.
There‘s always a point in a meal here, with the restaurant going full tilt and each course so gratifying that we’re having too much fun to even think about leaving, so we delay dessert with a cheese course. Dried mission figs with some soft fig leather come with a serious pecorino -- nothing sheepish about that dry, sharp, even pleasantly rank cheese. Red Cow Parmigiano is prized by some cheese lovers, but for me is less compelling and, in a rare misstep, is one night served with pear that isn‘t sufficiently ripe.
For dessert, look on the specials list for the creamy but delicate, quivering panna cotta (cream custard). Or, there’s my favorite, three scoops of dense chocolate mousse served with orange and strawberry slices and sauced, almost invisibly, with a clear orange- and mint-flavored syrup -- another simple, brilliant coup.
Angelini Osteria, 7313 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 297-0070. Beer and wine served. Open for lunch Mon.--Sat. noon--3 p.m., for dinner seven days 5:30--11 p.m. Valet parking. Entrees, $16--$30. Major credit cards accepted.
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