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At Scopa, Antonia Lofaso delivers zesty Italian American food

Jonathan Gold reviews Scopa, where 'Top Chef's' Antonia Lofaso oversees the kitchen

It's pleasant, Saturday brunch at Scopa Italian Roots, a bit of calm compared with the roar of nearby Abbot Kinney Boulevard. The filtered sunlight in the double-height dining room feels like late afternoon, although it is just after noon. Big tables of neighborhood regulars, so loud late in the evening, are polite, almost subdued. It is hard to believe that not long ago, this was a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, all egg rolls and moo shu pork.

The bartender hand-shakes a beautiful Ramos Fizz, the classic New Orleans breakfast cocktail of egg white, gin, citrus and orange flower water; a pristine white column just slightly denser than air. There is a small specialty in morning dishes that New York expatriates might be hungry for — blintzes, Sabrette's hot dogs, scrambled eggs with bacon and cheese on a roll — but it is just as easy to lean into crostini with kitchen-made ricotta and a bit of olive oil, or cheese-intensive kale salads.

Do some people come just for the old-school spaghetti and meatballs, a dish that hasn't quite made it to the more serious dinner menu yet? They must. Because prosciutto with burrata and grapes — you can get that anywhere.

Scopa is a second collaboration between Antonia Lofaso, also chef of Black Market Liquor Bar in Studio City, and the team of Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix, who seem to own half of the stylish bars in Los Angeles, including Black Market, La Descarga, Pour Vous and Harvard & Stone.

Lofaso, a protégée of Spago's Lee Hefter, is on television a lot — she was a star of "Top Chef's" fourth season and is currently on "Cutthroat Kitchen." She is also the author of the 2012 "Busy Mom's Cookbook," which is actually kind of good to have around if you need an easy recipe for braised brisket or blueberry muffins. In the book she confesses that her restaurant jobs have also included stints waiting tables at Chin Chin and Puff Daddy's soul food restaurant Justine's. Her heritage is Italian American, but her experience is fairly eclectic.

Black Market is unabashedly a bar with food — Lofaso's ricotta gnocchi and Korean chicken wings are delicious, even worth a drive over the hill, but are secondary to the perfume of Moix's cocktails. At Scopa, her cooking and Moix's cocktails are more or less evenly matched, so while it is possible to sit at a table all night with rare mezcals and expertly mixed Mamie Taylors, you are probably going to be drinking them with duck-stuffed shell pasta, shaved Brussels sprouts with almonds or fried cauliflower with Parmesan cheese.

Still, there is a distinct liquor orientation at Scopa. The wine list is decent, fairly deep in grower Champagnes and collectible Italian wines, but the bottles tend to be pretty expensive, and the by-the-glass pours are more expensive than the cocktails. (In practice, you're going to be drinking more negronis than you are old Quintarelli or Emidio Pepe.) If you're OK with wines you can't quite pronounce, the separate, mostly Italian by-the-glass list — Coenobium, Falanghina, Roagna — is interesting too, although the proprietors are undoubtedly more fascinated with the rotating list of featured spirits. Ron Cooper of Del Maguey reserves special barrels just for them. The eccentric Umbrian wine producer Paolo Bea is unlikely to be doing the same.

In truth, the strong flavors of Lofaso's brand of Italian American cooking, underlaid with rowdy herbs and jolts of acidity, do not especially flatter wine. You would almost rather have an IPA or a tart boulevardier with her bowl of mussels fra diavolo, in its ultra-reduced tomato-chile sauce, than a glass of white. So order a bourbon and contemplate the calamari, which is puffy, crunchy and jet-black in its squid-ink-dyed batter; or the fractal geometry of the romanesco cauliflower with hazelnuts and shreds of mint; or the rather overcooked seared scallops with oregano and brown butter. Consider a meatball hero. Nibble at the finely shredded chopped salad, zapped with oregano and plumped out with a deli case full of Italian meats. The meat-sauce-stuffed fried arancini, one to an order, are the size of billiard balls.

Scopa functions mostly as a small-plates restaurant, with enormous T-bone steaks and lemony seafood salad set out for sharing, but it also works as a regular Italian restaurant, structuring a meal as antipasto-pasta-entrée, and the menu makes it easy to do so. The roster of pastas includes chitarra-cut spaghetti with cheese and lots of black pepper in the school of a Roman cacio e pepe, and bucatini in a wan version of a classic Amatriciana sauce. (The pastas are not what you might call al dente.) An enormous veal chop, breaded and pan-fried, comes almost buried under a green, bittersweet mass of sorrel and dandelion leaves; a small, crisp-skinned roast chicken is served with creamy polenta. There are the street-fair fritters called zeppole, chocolate panna cotta and bowls of spumoni for dessert.

A traditional Italian American meal? Almost, but not quite. Because you are not finishing your dinner with sambuca — but with a snifter of extra-aged tequila straight up.

jonathan.gold@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @thejgold

Scopa Italian Roots

A bar with food, or a restaurant with drinks? You choose.

LOCATION

2905 W. Washington Blvd., Venice, (310) 821-1100, scopaitalianroots.com

PRICES

Antipasti and salads, $8-$18; pastas, $14-$18; main courses, $19-$22; desserts, $7-$10.

DETAILS

Dinner, 5 p.m. to midnight Mondays to Fridays, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays; brunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.

RECOMMENDED DISHES

Roasted romanesco, fried calamari, mussels fra diavolo, Italian chopped salad, veal chop Milanese.

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