If you've been to a party in Silver Lake lately, gulped sulfite-free Grenache on a back porch lighted year-round with votive candles and strings of Christmas lights, you know certain things to be true. The neighborhood is not on the Eastside, no matter how passionately some of its residents insist it is. Spaceland used to be better when it was still called Spaceland. And Silver Lake has no good restaurants — no really good restaurants, anyway, the kind that are written about in national magazines and make critics' year-end lists, or even places where the penne doesn't make you yearn for Vincenti or Bestia. You can point out one exception or another, but locals are painfully aware of the boundaries of their district, and 100 yards away from Silver Lake is still not Silver Lake. You will also recognize this complex if you've visited Williamsburg or Park Slope in Brooklyn.
But gentrification does occasionally have its upsides — Silver Lake was first in third-wave coffee, and Night + Market Song is a Thai restaurant worth a journey from anywhere in town. A couple of the Asian restaurants are good enough to forestall longings for the San Gabriel Valley, at least for a minute or two. If you look carefully enough, you'll even find a good wine list or two.
And now there's Alimento, a new Italian restaurant from Zach Pollack that in just a few months has established itself as one of the better small Italian restaurants in Los Angeles, a place so fantastically popular that the valet station occasionally backs up Silver Lake Boulevard and even TV stars content themselves with sitting at the bar.
You may know Pollack from Sotto, where he has been cooking Southern Italian food with Steve Samson for the last few years, or from South Coast Plaza's Pizzeria Ortica before that. This is an era of solo acts, young chefs breaking away from the strictures imposed by serial restaurateurs and their pocketbooks, and Silver Lake may be an appropriate place for chefs as well as musicians to go indie. And Pollack is turning things upside down.
Tortellini in brodo is perhaps the emblematic dish of Bologna — tiny dumplings stuffed with a mixture that includes mortadella, Parmigiano and a touch of nutmeg and served in a rich, concentrated broth usually made from capon. Tortellini in brodo is revered in Bologna. The ring-shaped dumplings are often said to be fashioned after the navel of Venus. If you've had the right version there, you can almost believe it.
Pollack spent a bit of time cooking in the region, but his take on the dish, which he calls "al contrario," is a pasta from Opposite Day. His tortellini are filled with hot broth, like a Shanghai soup dumpling, and the diced mortadella and Parmesan cheese are in the sauce. You drag tortellini through the creamy emulsion, pop them into your mouth, and they burst into flavor. The impression is nowhere near the same as the original (the sauce is a little stodgy, and the pasta wrappers far from al dente), but the effect is still delightful; witty without being pretentious.
He constructs little finger sandwiches out of seared mortadella, puff pastry and seedy mustard and calls it pig in a blanket. He elevates a simple Italian-American chopped salad of slivered greens and salami by heaping it on a smear of puréed chickpeas, which are so much nicer than the mealy canned garbanzos you may have grown to expect. He boils calf's tongue, slices it thinly and daubs it with puréed tuna — it may be the supplest vitello tonnato you will ever taste.
His menu here is modest but clever. You're tempted to come back often just to see what he may be up to next — giant platters of braised lamb neck, perhaps, or lightly pickled mackerel seared and plunked onto spicy beans, or fusilli pasta tossed with a dense, intensely flavored sauce made with clams, fava leaves and smoked butter.
Smooth, cool chicken liver pâté is spread out into a broad, shallow half-moon on its heavy Heath plate, flanked by slices of grilled bread and a splash of plum jam. (There is an emphasis on chicken liver here — the maccheroncini with diced livers and a powerful hit of reduced Marsala wine is among the best pasta dishes.) Even the farro salad, a deli-case throwaway at most restaurants, is terrific: lightly dressed and tossed with small roasted tomatoes and pungent sheep cheese.
His version of baccalà involves chewy bits of the fish sautéed with tomatoes and ladled onto a mound of polenta whipped with more of the salt cod, and whether it is, as the menu states, "in the style of the Mantovan Jew" is less relevant than its frank, powerful deliciousness.
You'll find a nice selection of natural wines. Try the sinuous Nero d'Avola from cult Berkeley producer Broc. Reservations are tight, but there is often seating at the bar.
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Zach Pollack turns Italian food upside down in Silver Lake.
1710 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 928-2888, alimentola.com
Plates, $8-$16; pasta, $14-$17; platters, $29-$89; desserts, $8
Open 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays; 5:30 p.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Valet parking.
Chicken liver crostone, lamb belly, fusilli with clams and fava leaves, bagna càuda.