West Third Street used to have such a quirky charm for a neighborhood shopping district. For the past few years, though, glitzy boutiques and boites have displaced some of the old places as it gets a makeover as glamour puss. One welcome — and surprising — newcomer is Gusto, a terrific cozy Italian restaurant from a young chef with the unforgettable name of Victor Casanova.
The New York native arrived in L.A. three years ago to open Culina, the casual modern Italian in the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. The food was polished and sophisticated, with a separate bar devoted to trendy crudo. He knew all the moves. In New York, he'd worked with Scott Conant, Cesare Casella and Daniel Boulud and a number of other high-profile chefs. Then came San Francisco and Scottsdale, Ariz. He's also been a contestant on "Iron Chef America."
But when it came time to open his own place, Casanova left trendiness behind and went with his heart. Gusto is a deceptively modest, down-to-earth restaurant with some of the best Italian cooking L.A. has seen in a long, long while. He's putting in the hours making his own bread and pastries, fine-tuning his menu, choosing the wines himself and running the kitchen. Yet when he comes out to the table, dressed in a black chef's jacket embroidered with his name over baggy cargo shorts, he's beaming. For the 35-year-old chef, Gusto is a dream come true.
The other night the smiling hostess stood at the door with her reservation list. A guest without a reservation lounged on one of the three red chairs set outside under the window for waiting. Inside, the small high-ceilinged space holds just three rows of tables, two along the dark distressed wood banquettes, one down the center of the room, plus a couple of tables tucked into the bay windows in front. The look is traditional with white tablecloths and all, inviting. Walls are painted a silvery olive or red. There are dark beams overhead, and a gorgeous bouquet of white flowers in a white-glazed terra cotta vase screens the kitchen door.
He's got pizza, and it's very good, especially the classic Margherita made with beautiful tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala embellished with sweet basil leaves. But pizza just can't compare with Casanova's piccolo piatti, or appetizers, which by the way aren't that little, plenty big enough to share.
These include an uptown version of Milanese, with sweetbreads. First poached in milk, thyme and garlic, halved and then breaded in crumbs from the house-made bread and fried in olive oil. A swatch of arugula and cherry tomatoes on top. Genius. The sweetbread is almost custardy tender, lovely against the crunch of the breading.
Or what about his golf-ball-sized baccalá fritters made of finely shredded salt cod to dip in a spicy red sauce? Right now he's got violet figs served quartered with a heap of creamy burrata to drag through squiggles of saba (grape must) and basil oil. And polipo (baby octopus), the tentacles crisp at the edges, the body sweet and meaty, paired with chickpeas in a heat-flecked harissa sauce.
Casanova grew up around Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, famous for its markets and Italian American food. And he knows his pasta. All of it is made in-house. Do not miss his pappardelle, long, inch-and-a-half-wide ribbons, with a rich, complex oxtail ragu clinging to every strand, a perfect marriage of texture and flavor. Gargati are similar to strozzapreti, very much al dente, tossed in a sauce of fennel sausage simmered in Chianti with rosemary — and a touch too much salt.
Late spring announces itself in half-moon agnolotti stuffed with ricotta, mint and sweet English peas. The tender bite-sized morsels are cloaked simply in butter and lemon, the better to show off the subtle flavors.
Casanova gets an eclectic crowd. One night I note Hustler's Larry Flynt digging into pasta. And it turns out the young guy all dressed up in a suit and eating by himself is his limo driver. Another time, an Italian winemaker is ensconced with his distributor and a good dozen bottles of vino. Passersby come in, look around and then come back for a table. The only downside is the noise level, but then good Italian food tends to make people get excited.
On the small all-Italian wine list, the chef has taken some chances, going for bottles from smaller or lesser-known producers. And for value, he has a number of wines from southern Italy, along with a couple of Italian beers.
As for main courses, he's got just a handful, plus the occasional special. Right now firm spigola (white sea bass) comes with fat, creamy borlotti beans from the farmers market and bright-tasting marinated tomatoes. Two butterflied quails on a swatch of polenta with slivered radicchio and a drizzle of aceto balsamico makes another fine main course. And for those big red wines, lamb sirloin with potatoes, baby artichokes and black olives does the trick.
But the dish closest to Casanova's heart is a homey one he grew up on: pork braciole, pork braised in a Neapolitan tomato sauce. He's kept it real and hasn't tried to update or gentrify it. Here's a chef who doesn't try to show you everything he can do in one dish. He's cooking what he truly likes to eat, and it's a pleasure to get to know his palate.
This restaurant just makes me happy. At most Italian restaurants, desserts are a disappointment. Not here, not when you can get a tall wedge of coconut gelato pie or a fragile panna cotta served plain with a streak of blackberries and honey. (They'd be even better if the chef turned down the sweetness level.) Or a deep, dark delicious budino with vanilla bean cream. That's chocolate pudding with an Italian accent. Even the affogato is made with Intelligentsia espresso.
To anyone who grew up Italian, or even if you didn't, Gusto feels like home.
Small soulful Italian from chef/owner Vic Casanova who revels in the food he loves to eat at this West Third Street spot—sweetbread Milanese, octopus with chickpeas and harissa, pappardelle with oxtail ragu, old-fashioned braciole, and affogato made with Intelligentsia coffee.
Location: 8432 W. Third Street, Los Angeles (between Orlando Avenue. and La Cienega Boulevard), (323) 782-1778, gusto-la.com.
Price: Small plates, $11 to $16; pizzas, $13 to $15; pasta, $14 to $17; main courses, $18 to $28; sides, $7; desserts, $7.
Details: Open Tuesday to Thursday, 6 to 11 p.m.; Friday 6 to 11:30 p.m.; Saturday 5 to 11:30 p.m. and Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Corkage, $20. Valet parking, $4.
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