It's been years since Alto Palato closed, yet I can't drive down La Cienega past STK steakhouse without remembering the late Mauro Vincenti's last restaurant. I still see Vincenti in a cashmere golf sweater fussing over details. Danilo Terribili choosing the wines and running the dining room. Fredy Escobar in the kitchen. And Gino Rindone (now a manager at Angelini Osteria) manning the espresso machine and turning out authentic gelato.
Gone, all gone.
For the last few months, though, Alto Palato fans have slowly been finding their way to the new A1 Cucina Italiana on Robertson Boulevard, where some of the old team is re-creating the spirit of the old restaurant. The former Il Buco space still belongs to Giacomino Drago, Celestino Drago's younger brother, but after 14 years running it (along with numerous other ventures), the younger Drago wants to concentrate on Yojisan, the Beverly Hills sushi restaurant he opened a month ago. So he brought in Terribili as managing partner to create a new Italian restaurant at the Il Buco location.
Terribili wasted no time giving the interior a smart new look — parking Drago's orange Vespa in front, arranging sleek orange outdoor chairs on the sidewalk terrace, adding new lighting and other touches. More important, he tracked down Escobar and brought him in to run the kitchen.
Terribili and Escobar have entirely revamped the menu to the consternation of some regulars still looking for "chop chop salad," pumpkin ravioli and lasagne with sausage and hard-boiled egg from the Il Buco days. Things change. And for me, the change is for the better. Prices are lower too.
Inside, the two dining rooms are cozy and contemporary (a hard combo to come by) with generous leather booths and banquettes and Terribili's own black-and-white photos framed on the walls. I can't say exactly why — maybe it's the intimate scale of the restaurant — but A1 feels very much like a restaurant you'd find in the back streets of Rome but in a much quieter neighborhood. The name comes from the A1 Autostrada, the highway that runs nearly the length of Italy, from Milan through Florence and Rome to Naples.
To see what A1 is about, start with sautéed squid and cannellini beans with sweet caramelized onions, maybe the raw artichoke and mâche salad with slivers of good Parmigiano in a lemony dressing. Follow that with egg-rich pappardelle sauced in a gentle lamb ragù. It's Neapolitan style, the lamb cooked in one piece with onion, a little red wine and tomato sauce for some five hours, then hand-chopped and added back into the ragù.
Or if it's a Tuesday night, order the special of the day, coda alla vaccinara, Roman-style oxtail stew, for my money, always a much better dish than osso buco. The meaty oxtails are slowly stewed with tomatoes, onions, carrots and lots of celery for several hours until the meat is falling off the bones. The beef has a wonderfully rich, gelatinous quality, like something you'd eat at a trattoria in Trastevere.
Dessert? Have the millefoglie, puff pastry layered with a silky vanilla pastry cream and berries.
Unlike Alto Palato, A1 doesn't have a wood-burning pizza oven, which means pies take six minutes instead of 11/2 minutes to cook. But they are cooked on a hot stone, and the thin crust emerges crisp and crackling, speckled with black. I have two favorites. Coste is topped with emerald chard, mozzarella and guanciale (cured pork jowl) and seasoned with pine nuts and Calabria's famous dried hot peppers. The other features a blanket of molten mozzarella covered lightly with thinly sliced potato and guanciale, fantastic with a bottle of a Kerner from Abbazia di Novacella or a Vermentino from Sardinia.
Of course, you could go with some sliced meats as well, nicely plated but nothing out of the ordinary. What's terrific, though, is the creamy burrata cheese on a bed of eggplant ragù with onions and tomato and dusted with fennel pollen.
OK, now for the pasta, which veers away from the usual L.A. lineup. Not to worry. It's all cooked very much al dente. Spaghetti alla chitarra (square-cut) comes in a gentle tomato sauce with sweet garlic and, for something different, fiore sardo, a Sardinian sheep's milk cheese. I'm crazy about the bombolotti (stubby, ridged tube-shaped pasta) sauced in olive oil with fresh artichokes and mint, the pure taste of spring. Sometimes the chef also makes the same pasta shape alla gricia, which is basically a white amatriciana (without tomatoes) with guanciale. The pappardelle with lamb ragù is a classic, but if you see rabbit ragù on the menu, grab it. The meat is soft and tender, light as can be, just delightful. Occasionally, the kitchen does tend to over-sauce the pasta, a habit that's difficult for most cooks to break.
If you love scampi, $26 buys three butterflied grilled langoustines and a pile of rapini. The scampi are sweet and moist. There's a Milanese-style bone-in breaded pork chop, and tagliata (seared, sliced New York steak) with grilled endive too. Do check the daily specials. Saturday brings porchetta (roasted pork leg stuffed with fennel seeds and garlic), Sunday rognoncini, a bowl of sautéed veal kidneys sliced like mushrooms, a great red wine dish.
A1, near the corner of Robertson and Wilshire boulevards, holds the standard high for solid, truly Italian cooking. Service is nimble. It's quiet enough to talk unless you're sitting next to a big exuberant group. You couldn't ask for much more in a neighborhood spot. And if this isn't your neighborhood, so what? It's worth pretending.
Location: 107 N. Robertson Blvd. (at Wilshire Boulevard), Beverly Hills, (310) 657-1345, http://www.a1la.com.
Prices: Dinner appetizers, $4 to $14; pizzas, $13 to $16; pastas, $14 to $17; main courses, $18 to $25; sides, $5; dessert, $9.
Details: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; and for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Corkage, $15. Street parking, or valet, $5.