The most obscurely located new restaurant in town? It may be Officine Brera, tucked into the rear of a parking lot at the end of 6th Street at the end of what seems like the world's largest no-parking zone and located near a gun club a few steps from the stub of the demolished 6th Street Bridge. It is a little hard to spot from the street until you learn to recognize its squiggly art-directed logo, less a physical sign than a specter projected in blond light against the surface of a gymnasium-broad wall. It may be easier to locate by its fragrance of wood smoke than by sight.
The soaring glass-and-metal building, apparently a converted gas-meter warehouse, has long been coveted by restaurateurs — including Walter Manzke, who once imagined it could be the site of what turned out to be République. It ended up in the hands of Matteo Ferdinandi and chef Angelo Auriana, whom you may know from Factory Kitchen (around the corner) and from Valentino, where Auriana was the chef for nearly two decades. Officine Brera (the name is a combination of the Italian word for workshop and the name of the district of Milan that holds the city's art museum) is the grand, serious Italian restaurant Los Angeles has been yearning for: booming opera arias instead of EDM, wood-grilled steaks if you're into that sort of thing and grilled stuffed trout if you're not, a smattering of the usual amaro-infused cocktails but also a solid list of Italian wines chosen by Francine Diamond-Ferdinandi if you yearn for a Bonarda or Etna Rosso with your pasta instead.
Auriana and co-chef Mirko Paderno cure their own lardo, sweetening it with a bit of honey and draping it over greens, and they serve ripe, barely stinky Taleggio cheese with a little salad of celery leaves and apple. Thin slices of boiled tongue come with spiced olives. Crisp green beans are showered with cheese shavings and hazelnuts. The culatello — heart of the prosciutto, made in Canada from Heritage-breed pork and sliced transparently thin — may be pallid compared with what you might find around Zibello, its spiritual home, but the intensely porky head cheese is salty and good.
"I am beginning to think," says a friend, "that everyone who wants to cook Italian rice in Los Angeles be required to come to Officine Brera first. There are some other good risottos in town, but none of them really comes up to what Angelo is doing."
I think about risottos I have enjoyed recently at Alimento and Drago Centro, and about the spectacular risotto alla pilota with sea urchin I had just a few weeks ago at Dudley Market, but I basically have to agree: Risotto is an iffy proposition in restaurants, where it is difficult to accord it the 20 minutes of dedicated attention it needs to be at its best and where the usual shortcuts leave the individual grains gummy on the outside and chalky in the middle. A chef's generosity with cheese tends to make the mixture stiff and overseasoned, burying the nutty sweetness of the rice itself. And it is almost impossible to make ahead — risotto doesn't keep. People who love Italian cooking learn that labor-intensive fresh pasta dishes are often better in restaurants but that risotto is almost always at its best when eaten at home.
But Auriana's rice dishes at Officine Brera are marvelous things: generous and hearty, finely balanced but a bit more minimalist than you think they might be. (It is occasionally refreshing to encounter a dish here without the sharp flavor blast associated with local Italian cooking.) The risotto alla Milanese is as creamy and subtle as it might be at a trattoria in the Navigli, touched with but not overwhelmed by saffron and cheese. From the center of the rice soars a roasted marrowbone, well browned but not overheated. And when you spoon a bit of the quivering marrow into the risotto, a shot of pure animal essence against the tang of the risotto's mellow Lodi cheese, the effect is almost magical — numbing if you're eating the whole dish by yourself, perhaps, but a small essay in the interplay of richnesses underlined by the toasty fragrance of the rice.
The bassa padana, rice cooked with rope sausage and crumbly cotechino sausage, finished with Grana Padano cheese, may be even better: a real butcher's risotto. I love the pisarei e fasö, tiny flour dumplings cooked with borlotti beans, like an especially luxurious version of pasta e fagioli — you can have black truffles shaved over it for an extra eight bucks. The cheesy cannelloni stuffed with braised beef, béchamel and chard are also delicious. You are probably going to want the soft, winey braised beef shoulder touched with just enough anchovy to make it a ticking umami bomb, or maybe the giant braised pork shank rising from its platter like a prop from "The Flintstones." The menu is apparently inspired by the cooking found near the foggy banks of the Po River in northern Italy, and at the moment, the cooking is wintry as it comes.
But what may be the best dish in the restaurant comes from seaside Genoa, and isn't even on the menu — farinata: a warm slice of a massive crepe cooked in the wood oven, whose ingredients include not much beyond chickpea flour, water, olive oil and salt. Auriana's farinata is softer than it is crunchy, with a vague tartness from what I imagine is slightly fermented batter and served from a wheeled cart barely big enough to hold the heavy copper pan. It is exactly what you want to be snacking on when the first Negronis arrive.
The grand, serious Italian restaurant L.A. has been yearning for.
1331 E. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 553-8006, officinebrera.com
Antipasti $6-$18; primi $17-$29; secondi $28-$50.
Dinner 5:30 to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to midnight Saturday and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.
Frisceu; lardo al pepe; pisarei e fasö; bassa padana; manzo all'olio.