Everybody's eager to taste the cooking of Fabio Viviani, the Tuscan-born chef they followed during the fifth season of "Top Chef," Bravo's popular food show. Late of Café Firenze in Moorpark, he has moved on and opened his own place with longtime business partner Jacopo Falleni and Lisa Long on a quiet block of Lankershim Boulevard, a stone's throw from Universal CityWalk.
Viviani's not in the kitchen tonight, though, where a handful of cooks are working at a furious pace to feed two packed dining rooms. He's not in the main room where the handsome Falleni is going from table to table greeting guests and soothing egos. Where's Fabio? Somewhere in the Midwest, our server answers with a shrug.
Fine. We open the menu. Now, I wasn't expecting Viviani to reinvent Italian cooking or anything big like that, though he does state on his website that he's into molecular cuisine and fusion. But what I didn't expect was a menu so conventional it reads like a tourist trap -- mostly generic dishes from no particular region. Italian Food for Dummies.
It takes us a long time to order and not only because the restaurant is so dark it's hard to see. Do we really need another beef carpaccio or burrata garnished with vegetables? A Caesar salad or tiramisu?
In the end, we start with the gnocchi Cinque Terre and the malfatti. Swimming in a pale green pesto sauce, the potato gnocchi are tender olive-sized ovals, dimpled with the thumb. The sauce sings with fresh basil beneath the cream and Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings and tastes like a richer, New World version of the dish from Liguria.
The malfatti are not the usual marble-sized ricotta and spinach dumplings. These are three big ovals scooped out on the plate like ice cream and napped in brown butter and sage. Though delicious at first bite, the dish is a big wet mass, so it becomes less interesting as you work through it.
The 18-ounce rib-eye steak at $38.95 is so average that the grilled asparagus that comes with it outshines the beef. And the special sweetbread dish that night is as unattractive as can be, a long rectangular plate with the sweetbreads dribbled with a sticky red wine or Port reduction that's far too strong for the mild-mannered meat. Awful.
The wine list is a bore, too, lazy and banal, with many of the wines coming from the same distributor. When a bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, which costs $20 retail, is $55 on the list, markups are high. Missing are the mid-priced Chiantis, Valpolicellas, Dolcettos and Barberas that would better match the food.
The one bright spot is the service, which is some of the best I've had in the San Fernando Valley. Under the direction of Long, partner and former owner of Barsac Brasserie, which Firenze Osteria replaces, it's a team effort. When tables need to be cleared or set up, everyone pitches in, even the pretty hostess in heels.
When I come with Italian friends another evening, Viviani is in-house, though he's not spending much time in the kitchen while we're there. He's either taking calls or making the rounds of the dining room. When the beautifully barbered chef gets to our table, he kisses the ladies' hands with such fervor, I almost expect him to click his heels together too. My Italian friend is taken aback. He's never encountered this while eating in Italy. "Maybe it's a Moorpark custom?" he jokes.
OK: Open mind. We order a slew of dishes. To start are fried calamari and "tempura" zucchini, which you'd think might be airy and light but are, instead, heavy and greasy. Downright clunky. Beef carpaccio with roasted mushrooms -- and crumbled blue cheese, olive oil and balsamic reduction -- is overkill. I find myself wolfing down the bland minestrone. At least it tastes like country soup.
The waiter touts a special the chef just put on the menu: handmade fettuccine with black truffles. What kind of black truffles, I ask? Truffles someone just brought the chef from Abruzzi, Italy, he says. I decide to order it anyway, just to see what it is.
When the plate is set down, it reeks of truffle oil and no truffles in sight. I ordered truffles, not truffle oil, I tell the waiter. Oh, the chef will be right over to shave the truffle. A chef, not Viviani, soon arrives with a small nubbin of truffle, which he proceeds to shave sparsely over my fettuccine. Just for science, I taste one of the truffle shavings. It has zero flavor, hence the truffle oil. The pasta itself is very good, springy and cooked just to al dente. But the truffle oil and lavish quantities of butter ruin the dish.
Unfortunately, the same excellent noodles with Bolognese sauce are undermined by a sauce with, curiously, so little flavor, I wonder, how does he do that? Risotto is more like rice soup.
A thick prime pork chop and a side of Brussels sprouts with pancetta are the two best dishes we order that night. Osso buco tastes like it was steamed rather than braised. And because two of us are sharing it, I guess the kitchen can't decide who gets the bone and its delicious marrow so they leave it off. Or did it fall out on the way from the pot to the plate? Tagliata, grilled beef cut into slices, is filet instead of a firmer cut. The result is too soft and limp. And the arugula looks like it came straight out of a bag.
Forget the dreary tiramisu or crème brûlée. The best dessert is the house-made cannoli, a light crisp shell filled with creamy and not-too-sweet ricotta. Now this tastes real.
A third visit doesn't add much new information: The roast chicken is tasty if oily, and the roast potatoes are too, but the stuffed pastas may be the worst I've ever encountered anywhere, big thick ugly things with either a butternut squash and ricotta filling that has the texture of baby food or, in the case of the braised short rib ravioli, a dry, almost sawdust-like filling. Oh, and Viviani is again out of town.
So, if the food isn't the draw at Firenze Osteria, what is? Maybe the staff's warm welcome has something to do with it. Most likely it's a touch of fame and glamour from the camera-ready Viviani. Let's just say his attention doesn't seem to be fully on this very new restaurant. He's got a newish cookbook out (on sale at the bar) and a possible new reality show ("Fabio: A Catered Affair") on Bravo this fall. He's also a spokesman for a frozen pizza company.
But can he cook? Presumably so, if you believe everything you see on reality TV, but it's certainly not showing at Firenze Osteria. He's too busy riding that "Top Chef" notoriety as far as it will take him. But if people come to your restaurant because of your name and get food like this, what does that say about the brand he's trying so hard to create?
P.S. If you miss him at his restaurant, you can find him signing cookbooks at BookStar in Studio City from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday.