For those of us who are easily distracted, Gjusta can be a frenetic experience. First you have to find the place, located at the end of a row of industrial-type buildings in a residential neighborhood just south of Rose Avenue. There's no sign. Once inside, it's difficult to figure out how all of this works — the space is so huge, the counter so long, the crowd so thick. Take a number from the ticket dispenser on the back wall. Wait to have your number called. And do your best to make some decisions. It won't be easy.
Gjusta is something between a food hall and a deli, a sprawling concept that assaults all your food lust receptors at once. A long glass case runs the length of the room, and behind it there's a world of cooking and baking and activity, along with a small army of service folks who will take your order once your ticket comes up. As you walk down the expanse of the case, you're first attracted to the cakes and pies and pastries, and then jars of deep pink pâté catch your eye, and then you get absorbed by the glistening hunks of smoked fish. Look up, and on the back counter sit slabs of roasted meats, ready to be shaved and stuffed into sandwiches. Wander a little further down, and you'll come across puffy personal pies and platters of vibrant salads. You've yet to even really consider the lists of options on the menus (broken into meat sandwiches, fish sandwiches, rotisserie plates, other plates, salads, soups, meat pies, etc.) above the counter — and you already have four or five lunches in mind. How to decide? I can't help you there. Anything you order will be better than you imagined.
This wonderland comes to us courtesy of owner Fran Camaj and chef-owner Travis Lett, the folks behind Gjelina and Gjelina Take Away, which anchor the center of Abbot Kinney a mile to the southeast.
Technically Gjusta is a bakery and deli, and it performs those duties well. Baker Nicole Rucker, who manned the ovens when Gjusta opened (she had previously worked at Gjelina Take Away) has left the business, but her recipes live on. The bread is crackly and stretchy, the baklava croissant a marvel. A chocolate olive oil cake with a pink peppercorn icing is both buoyant and dense, the prickle of pepper utterly mesmerizing. There's a rhubarb/raspberry pie available during the short rhubarb season, which beautifully straddles the line between sweet and tart and buttery; it is by far the best pie I've had outside of someone's home in recent years.
You can get a piggy porchetta sandwich on that crusty bread, or a chicken parm that somehow reinvents the form — the chicken tastes better, the breading crisper, the tomato sweeter and tangier — while at the same time remaining utterly true to its gloppy soul.
What's not to love? Well, this is not a project without its controversies.
Gjusta's Sunset Avenue location sits in a predominantly residential sliver of Venice, in a part of the neighborhood that has thus far been more successful at staving off the intense development and gentrification that the rest of Silicon Beach has experienced. In fact, the stretch of Third Street that runs between Gjusta's front door and Rose Avenue has become a significant homeless encampment in recent years, dubbed "Skid Rose" by locals (for its proximity to Rose Avenue).
Gjusta's sister restaurant Gjelina is in some ways a symbol of the vast difference between Abbot Kinney now and the Abbot Kinney of an older, weirder Venice, and so to some residents Gjusta feels like the beginning of the end, the bringer of yuppies and even higher rents and the instigator that will change their neighborhood from residential/industrial to commercial.
As such, they've managed to put up some resistance to the project, enough so that owners are still trying to get the permits that would allow alcohol and, most pressingly, seating. The current arrangement has no seating at all — the building is zoned for take-away only — just a marble bar surrounding the coffee area where you can stand and eat, and a patio adjacent to the parking lot where diners perch on makeshift benches and prop plates on overturned milk crates.
For those not in the know regarding the political wrangling and zoning laws affecting Gjusta, it can be confusing to peer behind the building onto a roped-off patio and see employees using large wooden tables to eat lunch and jar pickles while you try to find a place on your rickety milk crate to prop a glass of blood-orange iced tea.
Not that any of this has stopped the throngs from descending on Gjusta, and it's an interesting crowd. Men who drive Jaguar F-Types but are willing to squat over their $16 sandwich and $4.50 cup of coffee are a very particular breed, and Gjusta has cornered the market on the expensive car/expensive clothes/expensive food–loving slackers. There are more designer bulldogs in this parking lot–cum–dining yard, more giant sunglasses, more international moneyed hipsters than anywhere in town (except, possibly, Gjelina).
And while everything is available for take out (again, it's technically a takeout-only place), there's some food that is clearly better eaten immediately. The plate of thin-sliced roast beef showered with fresh horseradish, served with a side of peppery arugula salad? I'm sure the beef would reheat fine, but some of its juicy, meaty glory would be lost. Even eaten while standing, this is an intensely comforting meal.
On the other hand, the personal pies do reheat fantastically, and to bring home a few of the chicken pies — or, even better, the ones filled with stewy shredded pork and root veggies — is a supreme act of love for your family. The smoky grilled escarole and white bean salad is just as gratifying whether you eat it from a plate perched on a milk crate or in the comparative comfort of your dining room. Try the lamb sausage roll — and, while you're at it, grab some of that rosy chicken liver pâté, which is tangy and rich and up there with the best pâtés in the city. At $16 for a large jar, it'll last you all week and feel like a giddy luxury every time you dip into it.
Signs on the door ask patrons to call a local councilman in support of Gjusta becoming a full-scale restaurant, with booze and legit patio seating. They're also giving out pre-addressed postcards at the register, with suggestions about how you might word your pleas for Gjusta's cause.
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It may or may not become a full-fledged restaurant. Either way, Venice's gentrified future marches on, and this particular future tastes better than many of the alternatives.
GJUSTA | Three stars | 320 Sunset Ave., Venice | (310) 695-1748 | gjusta.com | Daily, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. | Sandwiches, $6.50-$16, plates $15-$20 | No alcohol | Lot and street parking