Well, it turns out life goes on, and so does La Buca. The new chef is Piedmontese-born Alberto Lazzarino, who started in L.A. at the late Mauro Vincenti's Rex and Alto Palato, then cooked at Piccolo Ristorante in Venice before opening his own place, Melograno, in Hollywood. That excellent restaurant closed last year, a victim of bad location and the economy.
In only a few months, though, Lazzarino has made an impact at La Buca. He's kept a few of La Buca's classics, in some cases tweaking the recipes, and added new dishes of his own. In general, his cooking here is much less elaborate than what he was doing at Melograno. La Buca is an osteria, after all, a casual spot for eating and drinking. And most are inexpensive. (Osteria Mozza is the exception.)
Made with precision
To that end, Lazzarino is turning out thin-crusted pizzas, distinctive pasta dishes, specials of the day, and a small selection of main courses at prices lower than before. The repertoire is fairly standard as yet, but for the most part, dishes are executed with precision and a sense of what tastes good and appeals to the eye. It's so simple, he could probably cook everything on the menu blindfolded. Still, the kitchen isn't as consistent as it should be. Some nights, everything is delicious; others, just average.
On a rainy night, it's cozy and comfortable sitting at a table next to the tall windows that look out onto Melrose Avenue. The expanded La Buca has an authentic urban feel with its brick walls, wine bottle chandeliers and full bar, where you can have a cocktail or a glass or two of wine with a plate of pasta. Couples tend to occupy the smaller tables along the wall. A birthday party makes merry at two large tables pushed together at one end of the room. And upstairs, on a sort of mezzanine, is another dining room with a fireplace and a transparent roof. It's cozier there, but it can be really noisy, depending on who's sitting up there -- and how much they're drinking.
One night a wedding party, the bride all in white except for her motorcycle boots, trips down the stairs with the staff calling out goodbyes. The entire party stands out in front in a gentle mist as the bride and groom stuff presents in the back of a Smart Car.
La Buca started out as an unassuming place, which the neighborhood kept a secret, the better to be able to get a table. But now, with a red scrawl of neon pointing out the restaurant, you can't miss it. And as for that space next door, I'm hearing plans for a general store / wine bar.
It's fun to start off things with a pizza. They're thin-crusted but not particularly crisp. My favorite is the Ciccolina, combining mozzarella with tomatoes, the sweet pork taste of pancetta, and a flurry of baby wild arugula. But of course, the guys in my party will always want to order something with more heft, the Giovanni, say, which adds sausage and pepperoni to the basic tomato and mozzarella. The Riva comes off a little too bland, though, adding milky ricotta and caramelized onions to the basics. Because they're so thin-crusted, these pizzas are not particularly filling, better as a small bite to start off a meal. Divide one four ways, and it's just $3 or $4 a person.
A nice touch
I appreciate opening the wine list and not being shocked by the high mark-ups. Owner Graham Snyder has made sure that La Buca is one of the rare Italian restaurants in L.A. that doesn't gouge on wine prices. The one-page list makes choosing a wine easy, grouping whites from $20 to $40, reds either in the $30 to $50 category, or in the over $50. There's also a small selection of reserve and special wines at higher prices. Wine buyer Ricardo del Santo even has two house wines made in Tuscany for the restaurant. Bianco Ariana is a blend of Trebbiano and Chardonnay, while Mattia Rosso is a smooth rendition of Merlot and Sangiovese.
The menu offers some well-designed salads, notably the charred Romaine draped with julienned maplewood bacon so lean it tastes like ham, and finished with Parmigiano shavings and a standard vinaigrette. Or the tricolore -- green (arugula), red (radicchio) and white (Belgian endive) in a shallot vinaigrette. This, too, is topped with Parmesan shavings, which do tend to be too thick.
It's impossible to grow up in Piedmont without knowing good fresh pasta. And that has always been one of Lazzarino's strengths. Just taste his ravioli con il fico, tender little packets stuffed with potato purée and a little dried fig. The pasta is supple and tender, though he maybe overdoes the amount of butter and sage emulsion -- the ravioli shouldn't be swimming in it.
A rich classic
Pappardelle fumé is handmade inch-and-a-half-wide noodles in a tomato cream sauce enriched with smoked mozzarella and bacon. No denying this La Buca classic is rich and really filling, but it's also worth every calorie. The gnocchi in Gorgonzola sauce make a soothing winter dish too, each small oval bearing the imprint of a thumb.
And though I like the flavors of the linguine al carbonara, the pasta isn't really linguine but a squiggly extruded fresh pasta. Carbonara needs the austerity and the texture of dried semolina pasta to work; otherwise, it's too rich.
Main courses tend to be on the plain side, which is the way they usually are in Italy. Battuto -- pounded chicken breast -- though hashed with grill marks, is still tender and moist. The tagliata, made with a Piedmontese breed of beef grown in this country, is excellent. The beef is lean yet with a rich flavor and firm texture.
Some of the best dishes show up on the list of rotating specials of the day. Saturday, it's a classic rendition of osso buco, Thursdays lasagne, while Tuesday, it's braised lamb shank in its juices with potato purée and broccoli rabe. Still, I can't help wishing Lazzarino would introduce a few traditional Piedmontese dishes like brasato (braised beef) al Barolo or rabbit with peppers.
Desserts are pretty plain, too: tiramisu, panna cotta, chocolate tart or gelato. All just OK. Espresso is decent. But La Buca also serves a bright-tasting house limoncello at the end of the meal. Or why not try an amaro, the bitter liqueur Italians swear settles the stomach after a hefty meal. If you indulge in too much pasta, that's exactly what you may need to prescribe for yourself.
Besides, it gives you the excuse to hang out a little longer enjoying the ambience and the sense of the city at this reborn osteria. Every neighborhood needs someplace like this.