I sincerely hate to break it to anybody who hasn't heard by now, but mamma's gone. Mamma Loredana moved out, with her son Filipo Cortivo, from Osteria la Buca two chefs ago and opened her own place, Osteria Mamma, on Melrose Avenue a few blocks west of La Buca.
Meanwhile, remaining partner Graham Snyder has expanded the original hole-in-the-wall upward and sideways. A recent makeover by designer Brendan Ravenhill removed the clichéd Italian references. Gone are the bottle chandeliers, replaced by understated lighting fixtures. Shelves are stocked with house wines lined up like soldiers. Extra chairs form a chorus line on the top shelf. A huge black canvas hung on an exposed brick wall is stenciled with the words "We're glad you're here" in white.
This spring, Snyder also installed a new chef — one who is not Italian, and that's a first for this neighborhood restaurant. He's Jason Neroni, a Southern California native who found his way to a professional kitchen as a teen. He worked his way around the kitchen at Spago and, in New York, at Tabla, Blue Hill, Alain Ducasse's Essex House and 10 Downing Food & Wine. Just reading his résumé is exhausting, he's worked at so many places. Back in California, he took a job as chef at Blanca in San Diego, not a good fit.
At La Buca, his menu resembles those of previous chefs in only this: It includes pasta and pizza. But because everything else is so different, including the quality of the ingredients, Osteria la Buca has to be considered an entirely new restaurant. And certainly a more interesting one with a farm-to-table philosophy.
They've got pizza, but that's not new. Some of the toppings are, though. The crust is thin, billowy at the edges, the toppings sparse, though given to a rather all-encompassing layer of cheese not found in Neapolitan-style pizza places. Molten Taleggio scattered with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, caramelized onions and fresh thyme is modern and delicious. Other versions pair lardo (cured pork fat) with garlic confit and ricotta or speck (smoked ham) with mozzarella, tomato and arugula. Broccolini with pancetta and an overwhelming garlic paste wasn't a hit at my table. But that was just one. A pizza to share is always a fine way to start a meal here. And if you can't agree on which one to order, no matter, get two.
Bread comes from the pizza oven too, mini-loaves garnished with fresh rosemary leaves, perfect with the antipasti. Resist any impulse to go straight to the pasta or meat course. Share some antipasti first, notably the charred calamari topped with the delicately fried tentacles. Or a graceful salad of cucumber cut in spaghetti-like strands and showered with grated bottarga, capers and shiny green Castelvetrano olives — and lime. The flavors of shaved asparagus with coarsely grated pecorino and cubed oranges are wonderful together. But if I could pick just one, I'd choose the fava bean crostini with lamb pancetta and silvery boquerones — vinegar-marinated white anchovies with a touch of lemon zest.
Pasta comes in the portion sizes you'd find in Italy, which is a good thing. But I can already imagine the emails I'm going to get complaining about perceived small portions. I loved the agnolotti stuffed with sweet corn and strewn with lump crabmeat and lemon thyme. It's easy to find Spago chef Lee Hefter's influence in the tiny, tender packets. Raviolo is two squares of fresh pasta enclosing a mix of ricotta and finely minced cavolo nero, napped in brown butter, a beautiful dish. I'm less taken by the spaghetti cacio e pepe (not peppery enough) and the short rib lasagna (just too rich an idea, real boy food).
On every visit, the menu is quite a bit different from the time before, which is also a good thing. Neroni seems to be fiddling more with the main courses, coming up with dishes that are appealingly offbeat. Chicken saltimbocca makes a terrific summer main course, combining the salt tang of prosciutto with moist chicken breast on a bed of perky greens. His rolled porchetta, crispy at the edges and served with cannellini beans and sweet-sour spring onions, works beautifully except for the al dente beans. Both roast chicken and hanger steak are reliably good, but Moroccan-spiced lamb ribs are a little too fatty to be enjoyed to the hilt.
The menu, as you can see, is hit and miss, but with each iteration Neroni is homing in on that rustic Italian ideal. The new La Buca shows more promise than anything that came before, and that's exciting.
The wine list could be better, though. It wouldn't take much homework, just searching out importers bringing in some of the more soulful wines from small producers.
Desserts include a big fluffy square of tiramisu and an alluring cherry custard with a ball of pistachio ice cream on top. Follow the sweets with an espresso like they do it in Italy.
Service is mostly crisp and professional, but not every server gets the message to follow the customer's lead in pacing the meal. One guy came back at least four times after we'd sat down intent on getting that order in as soon as possible. It infuriated my guests.
Through all the changes, Osteria la Buca has retained a loyal clientele. If you don't already know the restaurant, this may be the time to check it out. The food is more compelling and the space more inviting than ever. People like its stealth aspect. Driving by, you can't really see inside. No bright lights beckon to the hordes driving by on Melrose. Just the red neon letters spelling out pizza can be seen in the distance. And a Ducati parked out front on the sidewalk with a pizza delivery box on the back.
Osteria la Buca
Rating: two stars
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 5200 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 462-1900, http://www.osterialabuca.com.
Prices: Dinner antipasti, $8 to $16; salads, $7 to $9; pasta, $9 to $16; entrees, $22 to $26; pizzas, $13 to $16; desserts, $9 to $10. Corkage fee, $20.
Details: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and for dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Valet parking.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times