View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Georgio's Cucina: Italian in Studio City."
When I was the New York restaurant critic for Gourmet, I spent a certain amount of time following a chef named Gary Robins, who in the mid-1990s had a reputation as Manhattan's master of Asian fusion cuisine. Ruth Reichl, my boss, had really liked Robins' cooking at One Fifth, then at Aja, an odd Flatiron District restaurant that had more exposed ductwork than an oil refinery, and had even loved what he did next at Match Uptown, an early, attitudinous precursor of what soon became bottle-service lounges.
I had wanted to write about his food, but by the time I showed up at the magazine, Robins was flitting from restaurant to restaurant with the randomness of a butterfly, and every time I caught up with him, it seemed like only a week or two before he was on to the next kitchen. Was there a diner in Chelsea, another midtown bar, a hotel restaurant, a vegetarian meal in Miami Beach? Perhaps; perhaps not.
I do know that I never ended up writing about his steamed lobster with Penang curry, his grilled mackerel with edamame or his mango sundae with spicy macadamia brittle. By the time he settled down at the Biltmore Room, followed by quick bounces through the Russian Tea Room and Sheridan Square, I had already moved back to L.A.
So when I got an e-mail a few weeks ago letting me know that Gary Robins would be cooking at Georgio's Cucina, a Studio City Italian restaurant best known for its thin-crust pizza, I was a bit startled, but probably not all that surprised. If Robins tended to regard regular restaurants, including New York institutions, as pop-ups, what could make more sense than a term in Los Angeles, the pop-up capital of the world? And if he was to be in the kitchen for just a few months, it still would be longer than he stayed at some of the places where he was chef of record, almost as long as he'd been at restaurants where he'd been reviewed in The New York Times. If Georgio's, which shares its mini-mall with Du-par's, Trader Joe's and Pinkberry, wasn't exactly the Russian Tea Room, so much the better: Nobody has ever gone to the pizzeria expecting to be blown backward with the excellence of its cuisine, and Robins' profile is a bit lower than, say, Tom Colicchio's.
I'm not sure what I was hoping to find when I drifted into Georgio's, a dim-lit red-vinyl-booth joint that I might have taken for a relic from the early 1970s if I hadn't known the building was much newer than that. A short, expensive wine list? Sure. (Da Vine Barbera, a screw-top whose girlie pinup label is amusing when you pick up a bottle for $10, is much less so at $40.) You can sense Robins' love affair with truffle oil the second you step through the door.
But where you might have expected him to toss a bit of seaweed or a subtle hint of chile into a plate of grilled octopus tentacle with borlotti and minced black olives, what you got was a straightforward plate garnished with good olive oil and a few slices of boiled potato. There wasn't a hint of calamansi or ginger in the arancini — crisply fried rice balls stuffed with a bit of truffled pecorino instead of the customary gooey mozzarella — and the crunchy round focaccia, glazed with truffle oil and stuffed with arugula and robiola cheese, riffed on one of the other emblematic dishes of 1990s New York, the truffle focaccia from Le Madri. The Chilean sea bass dusted with fennel pollen was just that — firm and slippery like the oily fish it is, served with artichokes on a bed of tiny "rice beans."
You may find a bit of unorthodoxy in Robins' crudos, the raw-seafood dishes that are a bigger deal here than they tend to be in Italy: the bittersweet snap of Oro Blanco grapefruit against the sea funk of sliced raw hamachi; the shreds of yuzu and wasabi on the snapper; the toasty sweetness of hazelnuts against the musky flatness of raw scallops.
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There are soft duck meatballs with stewed cherries, in which it may take you a couple of minutes to pick out the elusive third taste as marsala; the sweet, oxidized back note of the wine has almost the presence of garlic.
The little rigatoni in a wine-braised venison sauce seem almost like garnishes in a stew rather than the center of the dish. Braised duck with gnocchi seemed almost as if it were made for that screw-top Barbera, and I'm not sure whether that's a compliment or not.
The last thing I was expecting of Georgio's, I guess, was a mainstream Italian thing, betraying no regional allegiances or even flirtations, and with few of the Asian touches, unusual herbs or hidden caches of mango that had been found in his earlier cuisine. Georgio's under Robins turns out to be kind of a regular Italian restaurant, and a pretty good one. He'll be in the kitchen through the first of the year.
GEORGIO'S CUCINA: 11992 Ventura Blvd., Studio City | (818) 985-1072, georgioscucina.com | Dinner Tues.-Thurs., 5–10:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 5:30–11:30 p.m. | AE, MC, V | Beer and wine | Small plates, $6–$22; pastas $15–$19; main courses, $27–$42; desserts $9