Photo by Anne Fishbein

In the late ’80s, during the boom time of L.A. restaurants, Don Dickman was the chef de cuisine at Trumps, the groundbreaking West Hollywood restaurant started by chef Michael Roberts in the space now occupied by Morton’s. Dickman slipped off to work in Palos Verdes for a few years at the Ocean Trails Golf Club (an establishment whose main claim to fame is that its 18th hole once slid into the sea), and then moved into corporate chefdom (he opened Daily Grills all over the country). Yet even as Dickman held these jobs, he dreamed about opening his own restaurant. He loved Italian rustic cooking and wasn’t happy with what he found in most L.A. Italian places.

“In Italy, there are no caesar salads on the menu, no crab cakes, no tuna tartare,” says Dickman. Caprese salad in January was a particular pet peeve. “Mozzarella with cold hard tasteless tomatoes? In the culture of Italian cuisine, you use the best of the best or you don’t bother with it. Home cooks are professional about their food and ingredients,” he declares. “I wanted to do it how it’s been done for hundreds of years, with a sense of importance, a sense of fun, a sense of celebration.”

Two months ago Dickman finally opened his dream restaurant, Rocca in Santa Monica, with the look of a neighborhood New York bistro (aioli-yellow walls, dark wood booths) and a decidedly rustic Italian menu (lambs’ tongue salad, stewed tripe and wild-boar sausages).

I haven’t encountered such an enticing list of dishes in a long time. I want everything — thankfully, our waiter one night tactfully informs us that there are good things (bitter greens with prosciutto and pine nuts) and there are great things (black-truffle crostini with pecorino fondue). We find he’s right on target.

The great? Burrata — that creamy, soft-centered, rich-uncle version of mozzarella is here served with ripe heirloom tomatoes and green basil-scented olive oil. Tiny, adorable, Maine mussels come to the table sputtering on their hot skillet; they’re sweet, concentrated sips of the sea and hardly need the tomato saffron broth for dipping. Pecorino fonduta — the thin crisp crostini slathered with black-truffle paste and served with a sharp, luscious melted young pecorino gives you crunch, then the truffles’ flavor of yearning, then the sharp taste and soft oozing warmth of hot cheese — wow! Five spears of asparagus are splayed in a fan then “Milanesed” — topped with a fried egg encrusted in crunchy bread crumbs and Parmesan, with little flags of speck, air-dried ham, for color and salt.

The good? I eventually do insist on trying the bitter greens with the prosciutto (and pine nuts, figs and Gorgonzola) — and hey, it’s just a fresh, interestingly composed salad made from one of those baby-lettuce mixes of the more bitter varieties.

Dickman himself does the lion’s share of cooking — all the stewing and braising — but he also has brought in an ace pasta maker, Maria Gomez. Try the “millionaire’s pasta,” thin, ribbony tagliatelle that’s a joy to chew, tossed with butter, and maybe a drop of cream and white wine, plus lobster chunks and nubs of black truffles. Spaghettini carbonara has a completely different texture and taste — rich with eggs and salty guanciale (terrific Italian cured hog jowl that tastes somewhere between ham and bacon), it also has the green taste of parsley and the faint, pleasing musk of sheep’s-milk pecorino. Equally good and again, completely different, are fluffy ricotta gnocchi, which resemble small clouds and are sauced with a rich oxtail ragu — a triumph.

Of the secondi (or entrées), the best-seller, we’re told, is the tagliata, skirt steak sliced and served on dressed arugula with shaved Parmesan. It has a terrific char and great meaty flavor. I’d also go back for the flattened half-chicken “al mattone,” an excellent-quality, juicy bird with sticky-crisp, beautifully seasoned skin. The wild-boar sausage has an agreeable, intense pork richness that plays well with a green-apple mostarda, a lovely chutneylike condiment of stewed apples. But the dish I can’t get out of my mind is the pork spare ribs — meaty ribs long braised with tomatoes and green olives and possessing subtle undertones of the warm spices, allspice, clove, cinnamon. The depth of flavor is astonishing.

The only entrée that disappointed me was a single, very small (and therefore pricey) lamb chop. The preparation, with minted yogurt, sexy slippery bits of oyster mushroom, Jerusalem artichoke and a mere bite of pleasantly bitter cavalo nero (Italian black chard), is fabulous, but the portion was simply dismayingly wee.

For dessert, try the compellingly gritty yet soft bittersweet-chocolate polenta pudding cake. A barely sweet ricotta torta with chestnut honey and a sprinkling of bee pollen has a monastic spareness to it. Peach and blueberry crostada is a cute small rustic pie with a sturdy, buttery crust and the surprising crunch of chopped nuts added to the fruit.

Is Rocca everything Dickman wanted? Certainly business is good; I spotted plenty of devoted regulars. But the tongue salad was a really bad seller and had to be dropped from the menu. Maybe that’s why, if you’re a newcomer, your waiter or waitress might explain, with only a trace of condescension, that this is rustic Italian food and not, perhaps, what you might be used to in this city. He or she may then suggest that you share a number of dishes; tell you that the menu changes a little everyday, depending on what’s available; mention that the chef hits farmers markets three days a week, and be just a little too eager to serve you. Dickman isn’t the only one who wants Rocca to succeed.

One night, on first tasting her entrée — the skirt steak — a friend looked up and said with a slightly startled air, “Is this, uh, like a major restaurant?” In some ways, Rocca is simply too modest for that — too neighborhood, too under-dressed. But for those of us who crave the cozy, deep flavors of home cooking and the hearty earthiness of authentic rustic Italian cuisine, Rocca is definitely a major restaurant.

Rocca, 1432-A Fourth St., Santa Monica, (310) 395-6765. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Beer and wine. Valet parking across the street at Border Grill. Entrées, $11–$17. AE, DC, MC, V.

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