When the valet at Osteria Mozza asks if you have a reservation, fib and say yes, and then wait for a seat at the mozzarella bar. That's where Nancy Silverton does her mozzarella magic, creating a small menu within a menu, all based on mozzarella and burrata. You can eat just that or order from the rest of the menu too. But here, you'll get an antipasti lesson just watching her work. Usually, she has balls of burrata straight from Puglia, gathered into a knot at the top. She sets it on a bed of flattened braised leeks doused in startling green olive oil. The cheese is so fresh milk flows out when you cut into it. A bite of that cheese and then a bite of the 1 1/2 -inch-thick toast soaked in that same vivid oil calls up Apulia for me, just as her bufala mozzarella draped with salt-cured anchovies, each piece of cheese sitting on a thin slice of perfumed Meyer lemon, conjures the Amalfi Coast.
The sense of magic at Saam at the Bazaar by José Andrés
Inside the Bazaar by José Andrés, behind the circus the bar has become, is a quiet oasis called Saam, a restaurant within a restaurant open just three nights a week and by reservation only. The menu served to at most 30 guests is prix fixe, $95 for 22 small courses, some of them merely a bite and every one a delightful surprise. I never knew what was coming -- salty beet "tumbleweed," a miniature cone that's filled with avocado mousse, nori purée and yellowfin tuna tartare or spherical olives flavored with squid ink. Best trick: a teardrop of sugar hardened around a drop of olive oil à la El Bulli (like many of the dishes). Dinner at Saam is an intriguing bit of theater, and I relished every bite.
Saam at the Bazaar by José Andrés, SLS Hotel, 465 S. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 246-5545; www.thebazaar.com. Thursday to Saturday by reservation only, $95 prix fixe per person.
The pure expression of place and tradition at Ristorante Cacciatori, Piedmont, Italy
This fall I had an extraordinary meal at Ristorante Cacciatori in the hills outside Acqui Terme in Piedmont. It's not really a restaurant in the typical sense. Instead of presenting a menu, Massimo Milano or his father, Giancarlo, will talk to you about what you'd like to eat based on the ingredients they have that day, and they're always very local. There's always artisanal salame and dimpled focaccia from the wood-burning oven, carne cruda, raw Piedmontese veal, pearly pink and draped on the plate like a handkerchief with little pools of olive oil in the folds. It's fabulous. And the pasta is always tajarin, hand-cut tagliolini, that night served in a wild hare sauce so dark it looked like mud. What a fascinating, deep taste, and a beautiful match with Barolo! Then came partridge braised on top of the wood-burning stove, each bite absolutely delicious. I felt very lucky to be at table here again, savoring such soulful food and wine that comes straight from the land.
Ristorante Cacciatori, via Moreno, 30, Cartosio; 011-39-0144-40123; firstname.lastname@example.org. Closed all day Thursday and Friday at lunch. By reservation only. Dinner, food only, about $70 per person.
The comfort and ease at Gjelina, Venice
I'd suggested the locale for a friend's birthday lunch: Gjelina, even though I hadn't been back since I'd reviewed it. No worries. Chef Travis Lett came through with flying colors. And even though our unruly group was slow getting organized -- presents, Champagne, toasts, etc., our waiter never hurried the group to order and just let the lunch unfurl. He patiently took the drink orders, bringing out wineglasses and share plates. When the pizzas -- hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with beet greens and Taleggio cheese and guanciale with bufala mozzarella, green olives -- arrived, they were just as thin-crusted and wonderful as I remember. The nectarine, burrata and prosciutto salad and the one of escarole and sunchokes with preserved lemon and smoked almonds were too. With sun and blue sky overhead, a bit of a breeze, this felt like the California-Mediterranean ideal. Shhh, I want to say, let's just keep it a secret, shall we?
Gjelina, 1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 450-1429; www.gjelina.com. Vegetable dishes, $8; salads, $9; pizzas, $13 to $16; other plates, $10 to $25; desserts, $3 to $10.
The style and steak at Cut, Beverly Hills
Steakhouses come in all guises, from budget to bloated extravaganzas, but for me, where else besides Cut can you get such superb beef, precisely cooked, in a sleek all-white room designed by Getty architect Richard Meier? And when we're talking Wagyu beef, they have both the real thing imported from various prefectures in Japan and American Wagyu brought to your table before it is cooked, the better to appreciate its heavy marbling close-up. I actually prefer the American Wagyu, especially the New York sirloin from Snake River Farms in Idaho. It's not as soft as the Japanese Wagyu but still has plenty of marvelous flavor. And instead of the usual boring steakhouse fare, you can start with warm veal tongue with salsa verde or a bowl of Austrian oxtail bouillon with bone marrow dumplings. Sides are just as innovative, and as for Sherry Yard's desserts, well, you'll just have to find room. You can't pass up her bruléed banana cream pie, can you? Cut is sophisticated, yes. Glamorous too. It's also very much the splurge. And if star-gazing is on your mind, this is where you're almost guaranteed to spot a very famous someone or two.
Cut, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 276-8500; www.wolfgangpuck.com. Salads and starters, $17 to $28; steaks, $47 to $160; other mains, $34 to $70; sides, $12 and up.
A last thought: Breakfast at Caffè Sicilia in Noto, Sicily
If I could, I'd have breakfast at Caffè Sicilia in Noto every day of my life. Caffè Sicilia is, of course, the famed caffè in Sicily where Corrado Assenza and his brother Carlo produce world-renowned gelato and granita. Believe me, you don't know either if you haven't tasted them here. It's not just the incomparable texture but also the exquisite quality of the ingredients that go into the ice creams and ices. In warm weather, which is much of the year, breakfast is a tender, buttery brioche and a bowl of almond granita made from the fragrant local almonds. The ice is so fine-textured it looks like a bowl of snow sitting there on the table. You tear off a piece of brioche and use it to scoop up some of the icy granita between sips of espresso. Heaven.
Caffè Sicilia, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 125, Noto (Sicily); 011-39-0931-835-013; email@example.com. Breakfast about $6.
Note: This list doesn't include restaurants that haven't been reviewed yet, even if they may have opened in 2009.