Bottega Louie is the loudest place in Los Angeles on a summer evening, happy racket bouncing off the triple-height ceilings, caroming off the bare white walls and glancing off the moldings, pinging off the acres of marble and miles of brass, the roaring wood oven, the market up front, the gleaming open kitchen where military ranks of cooks sweat in their crisp whites. There is music, an odd selection of B-sides and jazz tunes pouring from the speakers overhead, but you won’t be able to hear it until the ebb of dinner service, when it is time to pay your check and go.
The crush at the bar is four-deep, the line for tables is half-endless, the main dining room, in the rear half of the former Brooks Brothers store, is packed with tables full of every sort of person who has a reason to be downtown at night: bankers and artists, nonprofit guys and theatergoers, lawyers, party trash and your aunt from West Covina.
If you can get over the idea of eating spaghetti Bolognese where you used to buy your socks, Bottega Louie is grand, a blank slate obscura waiting for you to sketch in the details.
Probably the most successful of the dozens of restaurants to open downtown this year so far, Bottega Louie is a project of investors Keat Bollenbach and Daniel Flores, with a kitchen run by Sam Marvin, a Patina veteran whose mid-’90s Melrose café Modada was credited with jumpstarting the fondue revival, among other things, and who guided the past few years of Le Dome. The restaurant is designed down to the colors of the macaroons in the bakery case and the typeface on the butcher paper. It is already attracting crowds more associated with sporting events than with meatball sandwiches and chicken parm.
The dining room feels like a brasserie, but serves mostly American-Italian classics, like stuffed artichokes, fried calamari, and clams oreganata, sliced steak, eggplant parmesan, and crisply sautéed branzino drizzled with a sauce fragrant with anchovies, garlic and olive oil. There is a small-plates menu structured a bit like the one at Pizzeria Mozza: baskets of garlicky French fries, sweet corn flavored with marjoram, tiny white-anchovy filets laid over a tomato, steamed asparagus blanketed with chopped eggs, and a dish of sausages and sautéed peppers that could probably suffice as a lunch in itself. A dish of mushy peas with prosciutto could have come out of the kitchen of any trattoria in Rome; cool boiled shrimp tossed with oil and chopped vegetables is simple, crunchy, fine.
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For a restaurant this big, the bready, crisp-edged Neapolitan-style pizzas that come out of the big wood-burning oven are quite good, if not quite up to the level of the city’s best — I especially liked a four-cheese pizza buried under drifts of baby arugula. There’s an emphasis on chicken here, and the big chicken-breast Milanese is crisp, buttery and delicious; the chicken with artichokes an intensely flavored sauté.
Still, while it is hard to imagine anybody turning down a chance to dine at Bottega Louie, its ambitions tend to be more cultural than culinary — many of the dishes lack the detail or two that would transform, for example, the pricey osso buco into something more than a dullish hunk of braised meat, the roasted Jidori chicken into a crisp-skinned beauty, or the towering, multitiered lasagna into a dish whose first bite differs at least a little from the 23rd. Imagine what the Musso & Frank Grill might serve if its chefs had been Italian instead of French.
Bottega Louie aims to be all things to all people downtown, and it more or less succeeds — open early enough for breakfast and late enough for supper after the opera, serving elaborate meals and tasty bar snacks, grand enough for a birthday not divisible by five, yet reasonable enough for art students to eke out dinner. If you need to feed the regulars at your Wednesday-night poker game, there are cold herb-fried chicken, fresh coleslaw and great bricks of macaroni and cheese at the takeout counter. If you’re having a few people over after work, you’ll find a small but creditable collection of bottles, artisanal oat crisps and a very well curated array of cheeses. There are grab-and-go sandwiches for the five-minute-lunch crowd and bags of ripe plums and Weiser potatoes for home cooks who didn’t make it to the farmers market over the weekend, croissants and éclairs, fresh bread and jarred pasta sauces made in-house. The bar area near the front serves creditably as a cocktail lounge, a wine bar and a café. For dessert there is Bulgarini gelato, and a chocolatey peanut-butter terrine that has already attracted a cult following. Bottega Louie is an easy place to be happy.
BOTTEGA LOUIE: 700 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn., (213) 802-1470 or www.bottegalouie.com. Open daily 6:30 a.m. to (about) 11 p.m.; AE, MC, V. Full bar. Valet parking. Takeout and prepared foods. Starters $6-$8; main courses $8-$33; desserts $7. Recommended dishes: corn with marjoram, marinated shrimp, fettuccine belmondo, chicken with artichokes, peanut-butter terrine.