Despite the name, Il Fico is not strictly a pizzeria, it also turns out some Apulia-accented antipasti and most especially pasta dishes. At Vincenti, Mastronardi does the whole elegantissimo thing with an ambitious menu and polished and subtle cooking. At Il Fico he can tease out his inner rustic cook with grandmotherly pasta dishes and lusty antipasti, many of them from Apulia in the south of Italy, where he grew up.
Not that Mastronardi is at the new place cooking every night; he's not. Vincenti's former sous chef Giuseppe Gentile is in charge, and he's also hired a young southern Italian pizzaiolo and cook to man the wood-burning oven brought in at considerable expense from Italy.
The design-conscious remodel has been so extensive it's hard to recognize the bones of the old Michel Richard patisserie. Co-owner John Tierney, who runs the front of the house as he once did for a couple of decades at the long-defunct Muse on Beverly Boulevard (he must have started as a 10-year-old), will tell you all about the changes. Single diners needn't feel self-conscious. They can take a seat at the wraparound marble bar or one in front of the narrow ledges that run along the windows in front. There's outdoor seating too, on the small patio in front, just across from the city's — what, 137th? — American Apparel store.
Though lunch can get crowded, what with Cedars-Sinai and all its attendant medical offices around the corner, dinner has so far been remarkably quiet every time I've stopped in. Not for long, I suspect, as word gets out that you can get such enticing pizza on the WeHo-Beverly Hills border. At night, though, that stretch of Robertson Boulevard is hardly bright lights, big city. Even that tight-muscled man in a hoodie and tights who for years has been dancing obsessively on the sidewalk as if condemned to some cruel circle of hell is absent at night.
Il Fico turns out truly thin-crusted pizza from the wood-burning oven from Naples. This is not about crazy inventive toppings. Most pies are traditional and contemporary classics. There's the regular Margherita, albeit seasoned with oregano instead of basil, but also "La Campana" made with luscious cherry tomatoes, bufala mozzarella and sweet basil, both worthy contenders. And another that adds anchovies and capers, which I like very much, especially when I get a bite of salt-cured anchovy filet. Your pie comes out freckled with black spots on the bottom, the cheese gently wheezing and dotted around the surface instead of covering it in an impenetrable blanket. The tomato sauce is loose and fragrant. Impeccable.
Modern classics include a hearty Apulian pie with caciacavallo in addition to mozzarella and a topping of sun-dried tomatoes, sausage and rapini, some of the same elements that might go into a pasta dish. "La Carbonara" plops a fried egg in the middle of the mozzarella with some house-cured guanciale, black pepper and some punchy pecorino cheese. There are a dozen varieties of pizza in all, priced $16 to $18. One may be too much to eat on your own. Better order two for three or four to share, and then if you're still hungry after, another.
But then you'd be missing out on some of the other goodies, such as polpette, or meatballs with a dab of mozzarella at their heart, served in tomato sauce. Or Roman-style artichokes gently cooked with mint in broth and olive oil and paired with a scoop of creamy burrata. You might want to start with an order of olive scottate, warm, Bari-style olives imbued with the flavors of garlic, red pepper flakes and orange zest.
Pace yourself, though. There might be involtini of wood-roasted eggplant rolled up with mortadella and mozzarella. Or panzerotti, empanada-like dough stuffed with fresh tomatoes, capers and mozzarella and crimped into a half moon.
It's these beguiling antipasti, and also the salads, that add value to the pizza experience. I loved the salad of arugula with pears, mushrooms, figs and crispy pecorino in a mustard dressing, and what is essentially a tricolore, combining radicchio, endive and frisée with anchovies in vinaigrette brightened with orange zest.
Apulian cooks take great pride in their homemade pasta, and here it's all made from scratch and it's very, very good. Hearty orecchiette ("little ears") is doused with olive oil, peppery rapini and the housemade sausage. Fusilli in lamb ragu with roasted sweet peppers and salted ricotta is another gutsy regional dish. And potato gnocchi? Marvelous little bites blanketed in four cheeses and slipped in the wood-fired oven. The lasagna is atypically light layers of pasta with tiny meatballs in a Bolognese sauce.
The wine list, unfortunately, is very limited, just eight or so reds and eight or so whites, with only a few interesting bottles in the mix. And yet the corkage fee is $35 — unless you spring for a bottle from the list in order to get the corkage waived. This seems shortsighted on the part of the restaurant. If you don't have a good wine list, why not charge a reasonable corkage for those who really do care about wine?
For dessert, the kitchen keeps up the pizza shtick with one topped with strawberries, cream and shaved dark chocolate. No, thank you. That sounds about as appealing as crispy nutella ravioli in a vanilla sauce with bananas. A better choice: panna cotta with a shot of espresso and whipped cream or the excellent tiramisu semifreddo, a partially frozen version laced with crushed almonds and cocoa.
We're in dire need of Italian restaurants that break new ground, not just the same-old same-old fake Tuscan places. Here's an example from one of Southern California's best Italian chefs with a welcome Apulian spin. Come for pizza, come for pasta, come for a pretty salad or to nosh on antipasti. In this neighborhood, Pizzeria il Fico is a gift.
Pizzeria il Fico
Rating: two stars