My friend calls it "Loud Italian." She also calls it "The Terroni-fication of dining" — the emergence over the past few years of big, bustling Italian restaurants that follow in the footsteps of Terroni, the Toronto-based chain of trendy pasta, pizza and panini joints with two L.A. locations.
There are charred-crust pizzas and the wood-burning ovens from which they spring forth; there are cocktails made with bitter amaros and sprigs of thyme; there are salumi plates and grilled octopi and the cacophonous din of a large space jammed with revelers and lit by filament bulbs. There are, of course, variations on the theme, but you know exactly what she's talking about.
Given the success of Terroni and its brethren (most notably Bestia, which is possibly the most popular restaurant in town right now), it's not surprising that impersonators are popping up all over the place. It's almost as if each neighborhood needs its own version of Loud Italian, given its popularity and adaptability. Do you want pizza and a beer at the "chef's counter"? No problem. A blowout multicourse dinner complete with expensive wine? Absolutely. Cocktails at the bar with a friend? Done.
One neighborhood that very much needed such a place is Atwater Village. The increasingly trendy enclave just east of the L.A. River and Griffith Park has almost all the other requisites for comfortable, urbane living: It has the coffee shops, the juice bar, the capoeira studio and the dive bars. It has a couple of good restaurants, most notably Canelé, which serves Euro-Cali cuisine and has one of the best brunches in town. But there hasn't been an of-the-moment restaurant opening in Atwater in quite some time.
Enter All'Acqua, the spanking new Loud Italian restaurant that has taken over a former Acapulco Mexican restaurant right in the heart of Atwater Village.
All'Acqua (which means "Atwater" in Italian) is owned by Claudio Blotta and Adria Tennor Blotta, who also own Barbrix just over the river in Silver Lake, and Cooks County in Beverly Grove. Mr. Blotta, who is Argentine by birth, is one of the many restaurant professionals in Los Angeles to have come through the talent factory of Campanile in the late 1980s and early '90s. He was the maitre d' and general manager during the restaurant's heyday.
The Blottas have completely overhauled the building, and the interior now is cavernous but sleek, with a large, open kitchen fronted by a wood-burning oven (check) and chef's counter (of course). There's a bar with plenty of amaros (wouldn't you know), and a glassed-in wall of bottles that hints at the same devotion to wine that makes Barbrix such a fun place to drink. The chef here is Don Dickman, who also runs the kitchen at Barbrix.
Cue the charcuterie! Make way for antipasti! All'Acqua's menu is as large as it is predictable, but these dishes are classic and necessary for this type of restaurant. The question is, how well are they done?
Just well enough. There's none of the inventiveness of Bestia, certainly none of the pasta wizardry of Bucato (which manages to distinguish itself from the Loud Italian pack, being much quieter and without cocktails and generally more original in every way). Dickman here serves pastas that are good but not great: the gnocchi pillowy but a little blunt; the ragus tangy but sparse in portion size, enough so you never quite get enough meat in any bite to revel in its, well, meatiness. The chicken liver luna — small pasta purses bathed in brown butter and balsamic — are slightly tense at the edges, not quite as pliant as you might hope.
Pizzas, divided into Pizza Rossa and Pizza Bianca, have toppings such as sausage and wild fennel pollen, or "carbonara" — pork belly, pecorino romano and a fried egg in the center. The dough is fermented for a day and has a slight tang, but I found mine a bit too floppy every time, not cooked quite long enough.
Still, none of it is exactly disappointing, and some dishes are quite delightful — an octopus salad comes as a bright jumble of citrus, with shaved fennel and pickled chilies, a juicy, vegetal, meaty combination that hits on many pleasure sensors at once. Tomato-braised meatballs with whipped ricotta are mellow and satisfying, arriving at that exact confluence of comfort and modernity that all of these restaurants are trying to achieve.
Because, really, that's the point, isn't it? To deliver something that feels at once new and yet familiar? Will there ever be too many whole grilled branzinos in our lives? Will the roasted cauliflower seem fresher if we add Calabrian chilies and chickpeas to the mix?
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In a city like Los Angeles, this is the task of the contemporary neighborhood restaurant — to appeal to our cultured sense of self while rewarding the deeper need for comfort and home.
Does any dish represent this better than a limoncello budino, a dish that is basically the pudding of childhood, fancied up for grownup tastes? It's the best dessert on the menu, made all the better by excellent rosemary pine nut shortbread on the side. Perhaps, in reality, we should be talking about the Mozza-fication of everything.
All'Acqua is a fun place to eat, the cocktails are delicious, the wine list is short but thoughtful. You could bring a date here, your kids here, your elderly parents. In many ways, it is exactly what Atwater needed. We can call it whatever we want, but the throngs of customers crowding into All'Acqua call it a welcome arrival.
ALL'ACQUA | 2 stars | 3280 Glendale Blvd., Atwater Village | (323) 663-3280 | allacquarestaurant.com | Daily, 5:30 p.m.-mid. (late-night menu till "1:30 a.m. or empty") | Entrees, $21-$27 | Full bar | Valet parking