There's no doubt about it: Scopa Italian Roots is quite the looker. If there's a checklist for modern-design elements that indicate a certain level of quality and chic in a restaurant, Scopa's designers ticked every box: brick walls, subway tile, giant mirrors, high ceilings, a vaguely industrial feel, even one of those tall, glowing back bars that make the liquor bottles incandescent, like a magical apothecary.
In fact, Scopa's lighting is one of its major accomplishments, and it goes a long way toward creating the suggestion that you are just as gorgeous and urbane as the restaurant in which you're dining. Here the cocktails are both sophisticated and pretty, and the kitchen serves until midnight.
The entire setup reinforces a pleasing image of yourself — you want to be the type of person who would eat here. If you've ever walked down a crowded street with a date, knowing in your bones that the two of you look damn fine together, then you have some idea of what it's like to eat at Scopa.
But looks aren't everything. And Scopa is like a hot guy who sweeps you off your feet before you realize a relationship requires far more than basic attraction.
Scopa comes to us by way of the team behind the bars Harvard & Stone and Pour Vous, and the same business partners with whom they opened Black Market in Studio City in 2011.
Chef Antonia Lofaso, who is also chef at Black Market (though you may know her from her multiple Top Chef appearances), is serving a menu that touches on California but mainly pays homage to Italy. Lofaso's Italian-American roots get their due as well, with upscale, bar-food versions of the cold-cuts hero sandwich and meatball sub.
Cold and hot antipasti take up most of the emotional energy on this menu, with a pleasurable pasta detour, as well as a few pricey meat dishes.
When Scopa is good, it is very, very good. Lofaso is serving one of the best sunchoke dishes in town, a cold salad in which she pairs the sweet, knobby tuber with its distant cousin-by-marriage, the artichoke, along with bitter treviso, then dresses it all in olive oil and lemon. It's a simpler-than-usual treatment for the sunchoke but one that will make you wonder why everyone doesn't do it this way.
And some of Lofaso's pastas are breathtaking. The oxtail on long rigatoni is deep and decadent, the very essence of rich stewy meat, contrasted with dandelion greens' astringent freshness. Pappardelle with pork shank and arugula is equally generous and addictive — on a chilly winter evening, the nuance and comfort of these pastas feel like love.
There are a lot of fun little plates of tasty things that are great going down but which you barely remember afterward. Sicilian tuna served with potato, celery and quail eggs is fatty and delicious. Beets and burrata? Sure, we've played that game before, though repetition doesn't make it any less amusing, and the addition of tangerine and tarragon gives it a vaguely new spin. Stuffed shells with duck sausage, and a rice ball stuffed with meat both pay homage to heavy, Italian red-sauce sensibilities: gooey, tasty, a bit underwhelming.
A whole branzino was cooked well, but the heavy salt crust overwhelmed the delicate-fleshed fish. A winter stew of black kale, ceci beans, parsnip and rutabaga sounded intriguing but tasted like your vegan housemate's home cooking circa 2002.
Desserts are straightforward Italian nostalgia: cheesecake and cannoli, and a chocolate panna cotta that's a bit too wobbly and not quite creamy enough. Much is made of the zeppoli, which come in a brown paper bag, but I found them a little chewy, not quite sufficiently airy nor generous.
Is it possible for a restaurant to be both slick and sensuous? I longed for less of the former and more of the latter when it came to sweets.
The servers here, as you might expect, are handsome and well-dressed. They frequently start with a convincing impression of casual camaraderie, but it tends to dissolve quickly into an odd combination of impatience and indifference.
Every time I ate at Scopa, the evening began with a server hovering until an order was procured, and ended with that same server gone AWOL. If Scopa were a man, it's at this point that you might begin to feel as though he was perhaps a wee bit inconsiderate.
Speaking of inconsiderate, I find it highly uncaring to put a lady in the position of not being able to drink as much as she'd like with dinner, but that's exactly where I found myself, thanks to Scopa's wine list. Wine at this restaurant is so expensive as to be unaffordable, which is a real shame, because the best of this food cries out for vinous accompaniment.
There are four bottles on the 100-plus bottle list that come in at the low end, meaning around $50. Bottles in the $70 to $90 range are far more common. You can go the by-the-glass route for $12 to $24 a glass, but those pours seem suspiciously stingy. It's a fascinating list that aches to be explored, but I simply couldn't bring myself to pay $78 for bottles of wine I'd seen in the better wine shops around town for $22.
Thankfully the cocktails, at $11, are a relatively good value, but still.
All of this makes for a restaurant that can feel incredibly glamorous and fun at times. But much of the experience ends up just a tad too forgettable.
Most of the charm of the place is upfront — dig deeper and it can feel a little vapid, like a very handsome man with an ego to match and occasional glimmers of a great personality. Fun for a few dates, certainly. You might even get lucky once or twice. But true love this is not.
SCOPA ITALIAN ROOTS | Two stars | 2905 Washington Blvd., Venice | (310) 821-1100 | scopaitalianroots.com | Mon.-Fri., 5 p.m.-midnight; Sat. & Sun., 5 p.m.-1 a.m. | Entrees, $19-$56 | Full bar | valet parking $5