California rarely feels more like California than it does from a window seat at the new Hostaria del Piccolo in Venice, where life's great pageant rolls by. Graying tax attorneys cruise by on Rollerblades, women toss yoga mats into the back of their Porsches and handsome young families roll by on their bicycles as serenely as if they were ducks. As you regard the glass of wine in front of you, you may contemplate a Westside drinking game, doing shots of on-tap Merlot every time you spot a dude with interesting facial hair, a knit cap, tie-dye and a skateboard; hear a distant drum circle; or smell a clove cigarette.
Sunny Saturday afternoons at Hostaria del Piccolo may be how the rest of the world thinks that we live here; scanning menus marked with special symbols indicating whether the dishes are dairy-free, egg-free, vegetarian, vegan or handmade; exclaiming with joy when we discover that the buffalo mozzarella pizza is available with gluten-free dough.
The restaurant itself is designed to look the way Italians imagine Californians imagine a beachy Italian restaurant might be, with odd custom ductwork, details that resemble the details that Ikea lifts from Italian design and a big TV screen at one end of the room that always seems to be playing either old Italian cartoons or an aerial tour of the yacht harbors of Sicily.
The designers have even discovered a new way to become uncomfortable — at some of the tables along the windows, you sit not in banquettes but on blond, double-wide benches, so that you feel you are always in danger of slumping into a stranger whose back is just a few inches from your own, and you are never quite sure where your own personal space begins. It's not a bad idea, actually; perfect for customers with yoga-trained backs and a spur to excellent posture for everyone else.
Hostaria del Piccolo, sister to the restaurant of the same name in downtown Santa Monica and nephew to the elegant trattoria Piccolo just off the Venice boardwalk, clearly knows Los Angeles. But what is surprising about the place is the note-perfect Italian-ness of the kitchen, which is both good and not so good, modern and old-fashioned, in specifically Italian ways. You would not be surprised to run into this place near the beach in Viareggio, in a shopping mall outside Torino or in a shiny exurb of Rome.
So the frico, for example, fried Montasio cheese from northern Friuli, is just that: not toasted into lacy pancakes, not enriched with mushrooms and white wine, but a fried round of cheese plunked down on a bit of polenta, untouched by so much as a sprig of parsley. Stewed baby octopus on polenta is stewed baby octopus on polenta. If you order the baccalà, you get an ounce or two of glossy salt-cod purée in a Mason jar and a few slices of toast on which to spread it. When you order the cotechino, a northern salami stuffed into pig's feet and boiled into infinity, there will be three perfect slices laid onto a small bed of lentils — not a heroic serving, but exactly as much as you want when you are thinking of a stuffed pig's foot as an antipasto.
This simplicity is not always easy. The first time I tried the costicine, pork ribs rubbed with salt and pepper and presumably roasted in the big wood oven, I became obsessed with the idea of replicating the dish at home — the crispness, the edge of smoke, the subtle hint of herbs. But I didn't even come close, no matter if I tried high heat or low; smoke or no smoke; dry-marinating for three days, one day or no days at all. If Hostaria del Piccolo could get them that good every time (they can't), they could build a fortune on that one dish alone, which is an ultimate party food. But even when they were less than perfect at the restaurant, they were still awfully good.
Still, when a restaurant's preparations are this straightforward, the ingredients have to be first rate and the cooking has to be careful, because everything — everything — shows. So when the puttanesca, a Saturday special, is cooked down to an ideally dense, fragrant jam of capers, tomatoes, anchovies and garlic, it matters that the penne it sauces is cooked several shades past al dente or that a dish of Tuscan beans is light and pillowy one day but almost uncooked the next. I tried porchetta, slow-roasted belly pork with fennel and rosemary, almost every time I visited the restaurant. Once it was crackly and almost melting, once it was leathery, once it was somewhere in between. On a menu with only three meat dishes — one is a basic pan-roasted chicken stuffed under the skin with ricotta and spinach; the other is a veal chop fried in the Milanese style — consistency is more important than it might otherwise be.
You can probably think of Hostaria del Piccolo as a small-plates restaurant, and certainly most of the people around you seem to be treating it as one. For two people, the ideal order is probably two of the small plates, perhaps a salad — I like the one with the Etruscan grain farro tossed with a bit of pesto and some cherry tomatoes — and either a shared pasta (the chewy green pappardelle with a white duck meat sauce is good) or a plate of plain-ish fish roasted with vegetables. (There is also an extensive pizza menu, but the doughy under-proofed pies are perhaps best ignored.) If you share a dish of gelato from Grom, whose chocolate with hazelnuts is one of the finer things on Earth, you will leave happy.
An Italian fantasy of California or a Californian fantasy of Italy? Something to ponder while nibbling roasted pork ribs.
512 Rose Ave., Venice, (310) 392-8822, hostariadelpiccolo.com
Antipasti, $10-$14; salads, $9-$12; pizzas, $12-$18; pastas, $14-$18; meat and fish, $18-$28; desserts, $8-$11.
Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Validated underground parking off 5th Street.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times