Primo Pasta

When two very different people from different corners of my life urge me to visit the same restaurant, I obey -- largely out of curiosity. In this case, both friends said the same thing, that a new downtown Italian place was grievously empty at night, and most emphatically did not deserve to be so.

Located on the southwest corner of First and Hope streets, Vivere is kitty-corner to the Music Center and right across the street from the DisneyGehry architectural extravaganza -- and the DWP. (Hey, slip over for lunch after paying your water bill!) Tucked into a small strip mall called Promenade Plaza, it is not visually prepossessing from the outside. Inside, it has all the charm of a corporate lounge area. Italian standbys (“Volare,” “That’s Amore,” Dean Martin and the Chipmunks) loop on the sound system.

Vivere was not empty on the rainy Thursday evening when I arrived with three friends. In fact, it was packed with the pre-theater crowd. The hostess, checking our reservation, pointedly said, “And you‘re not going to the theater, right?” Correct, we assured her -- although this may have been the wrong response, as it definitely made us a low priority, a fact acknowledged by the service staff when, much later in the meal, a complimentary plate of caviar risotto arrived at our table with apologies for the delays.

My three friends, who were fresh off the plane from Madison, Wisconsin, were most impressed by the urban hubbub, the ingratiating service, the quality of the food. I, the jaded one, was less so. I knew the hubbub was temporary, and the service failed to ingratiate me (indeed, it was just as marked by delays on return visits, when the place was nearly empty). But the food -- I really liked Vivere’s food, its easy authenticity and hearty, clear flavors.

Baked polenta with bosky wild mushrooms and a smooth, rich, tangy cheese “fondue” was exactly the sort of indulgence one desires in a special dinner out. Grilled Hawaiian prawns, dramatically presented in their shells, were sweet and delicious enough, but I couldn‘t get enough of the saucy, excellent sage-infused cannellini beans that accompanied them. Eggy crespelle (Italian crepes) were filled with fluffy ricotta and more of those wild mushrooms, and set in a pool of fresh tomato puree. Clams were steamed in a briny broth of their own liquor, white wine and fresh tomato; I only wished for a crisp toast for soaking, and made do with the fresh, sturdy Italian slices already on the table.

Over several visits, I came to prefer pastas over the secondi (entrees) at dinner, or even the very good salads at lunch. (The insalata contadina with grilled vegetables and goat cheese takes you straight to summertime; a spinach salad with chunks of pancetta, Gorgonzola and tart dried cranberries is more wintry in its pleasures.) Pappardelle, a wide ribbon traditionally served with game, is here tossed with shreds of mushrooms and pheasant, which has a delicately sharp, almost winy flavor that lures you back, again and again, for another flash of it. Orecchiette, thick, chewy “little ears” of pasta, which was supposed to come with rappini (wild broccoli), sausage and tomatoes, was tomato-less (unless you count the four teeny squares on the bowl’s lip for garnish) but quite robust and satisfying without -- like something you‘d eat in a Tuscan farmyard when the tomatoes weren’t ripe. A conceptual opposite, agnolotti “Bigoletti” was shiny black from squid ink, generously stuffed with lobster and sauced with tomato -- lush and dramatic, it was like eating an opera, plump diva and all. Only the trenette with peas and carrots, prawns and a light lemon sauce was a little too bland to praise.

The secondi we tried were dull and carelessly prepared, as if the cook were too bored by the very form to try. Osso buco wasn‘t even warmed through -- although had it been a better, warmer version we still might have muttered at the shameful dearth of marrow. Lamb chops, one of the most expensive dishes on the menu, were significantly overcooked. Okay, okay, we get the hint -- we’ll stick to pastas and primi (appetizers), clearly the chef‘s passion.

Eating at Vivere made me feel nostalgic for the early ’90s, when Los Angeles was flooded with such midrange Italian restaurants. The owner, Orazio Afrento, a veteran of those years (he was at Cucina Paradiso in Redondo and Drago in Santa Monica), brings his experience to bear in the brilliance of the location and the quality of the food. My friends from Wisconsin, perhaps, said it more succinctly: “We wish we could have gone back to Vivere with you,” they wrote. “We would‘ve paid to go with you.”#

710 W. First St.; (213) 437-4937. Open for lunch Mon.--Fri., for dinner Mon.--Sat. Entrees (including pasta), $9.50--$25.50. No alcohol served. Parking in lot or on street. AE, CB, DC, Disc., MC, V.


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