Of all the world cuisines upon which Los Angeles might base its culinary personality, Italian is not the most obvious. Pasta and braised meats and pizza hardly fit in with the cliché of L.A.'s light and healthy eating habits, nor are they what come to mind when thinking of the appropriate food to complement our perpetually sunny weather. Yet that's what we like, and that's how it's been for a very long time. A Ruth Reichl article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1990 — 17 years before Nancy Silverton opened her palace of Italian food at the corner of Melrose and Highland — begins, “California cuisine started in France and began a gradual glide toward Italy.”
Even with all that history, this may be the most Italian year L.A. has ever seen, with a mind-boggling number of new restaurants betting on the city's insatiable hunger for carbs and sauce. Not least of these is the Ponte, the restaurant owned by Bombet Hospitality Group, which until recently was Terrine. The turnaround was swift, and the place doesn't look that much different — Terrine's burnished mirrors and brasserie interior have been replaced by a vaguely midcentury look, with gold velvet booths and starburst light fixtures. But the configuration remains the same, and the property's main asset — its twinkling back patio anchored by a Javanese bishopwood tree — is basically unaltered. The tables now have cloths; the chairs are more Roman cafe, less rustic California picnic. Perhaps more important, Stephane Bombet is still the owner, and Kris Morningstar is no longer the chef.
Instead, Scott Conant is running the kitchen, or running it as much as any chef might while simultaneously opening another high-profile restaurant in New York City, where he lives. Conant is no stranger to bicoastal multitasking, having juggled multiple iterations of Scarpetta in New York and L.A. and Miami and Las Vegas over the years. (Scarpetta Beverly Hills closed in early 2016, and Conant is no longer affiliated with the New York location.)
Nothing is being reinvented at the Ponte — there's a sense Conant swept in, installed a menu of his standbys, and left it mostly in the hands of a capable kitchen crew and an executive chef, Freddy Vargas, who knows those standbys incredibly well, having worked with Conant for years. I'm not complaining; these are pretty good standbys.
Of course, there's the spaghetti pomodoro, the dish for which Conant is most famous. It's a thing of simple beauty, a swirling pile of al dente noodles and bright red sauce. And there's the creamy bowl of polenta topped with seasonal mushrooms, bacon and truffles. There are exceedingly dainty agnolotti, stuffed with braised duck and topped with a foie gras emulsion, English peas and pickled spring onions. This food is decadent and elegant and very well executed.
Most things are just as you would imagine they should be, and done exactly right: The skin on the wood-roasted branzino is perfectly crisped, the braised meats fall apart in tender hunks over various well-seasoned root vegetables. Innovation is sly, like the steak tartare that comes under a flurry of grated Parmesan, with chewy croutons instead of bread; or a pizza that combines the unapologetic stank of anchovies with the sweet sting of pickled Fresno chilies and the springtime freshness of squash blossoms. The pizza itself is good — not the best in the city, certainly, but more than passable — but this pizza, in particular, offers a base for one of the great combinations of all time.
Aside from the occasional plucky pizza, there's a slight throwback quality to the food at the Ponte, mainly embodied in the extreme richness of everything. The sauce on the steak is reduced to a sticky essence; the chicken liver pâté is a dream of glossy texture and lots of salt; the pork ragu over fusilli is so intensely meaty, even the springtime pop of fava beans that dot the bowl doesn't do anything to lighten it up. If there's one part of the evolution of Italian cooking that's been entirely welcome, especially here in L.A., it's a capacity for lightness and freshness beyond the standard arugula salad. This is fancy Italian cooking, mainly as it was before that evolution.
It's also expensive — much of the “antipasti” runs somewhere around $20 — but there is currently one bona fide bargain option, which is the chef's tasting menu. For $68 per person, the kitchen will throw a ton of food your way. Two people generally get two appetizers, a salad, three pastas, two entrees, a vegetable side and two desserts. It won't make for a cheap night out, but it will be an incredible value, especially given that requests for certain menu items are allowed and even encouraged. I paid about the same for about half the food on the nights I didn't order the tasting menu.
Ryan Wainright is still behind the bar, and while his freewheeling cocktails on Terrine's list were slightly more interesting, he does restrained, vaguely Italian-inspired drinks very well, too. The wine list is 100 percent Italian and full of fun and affordable bottles. I do wish there were more than three whites and three reds by the glass, but I'm guessing it's all part of the strategy to minimize risk — to make this the most straightforwardly successful restaurant ever.
The Ponte is a crowd-pleaser, a collection of things we already know people will like. Angelenos love a good patio (and this is an undeniably great one), we like Negronis, we missed Conant's spaghetti. We're absolute suckers for Italian food, whether it makes sense or not. Does it feel like a bit of a safe gamble? Sure. And I'd be lying if I said I don't miss the audaciousness of Terrine's early days. But taken on its own merits, outside of the context of Terrine and our current Italian glut, the Ponte is undoubtedly a very good restaurant. Sometimes you've just got to bet on a sure thing.
THE PONTE | Three stars | 8265 W. Beverly Blvd., Beverly Grove | (323) 746-5130 | thepontela.com | Sun.-Thu., 6-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 6-11:30 p.m.: brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. | Entrees, $26-$65 | Full bar | Valet parking behind the restaurant