Is nothing sacred? The definition of a "real Italian" restaurant used to be that a real Italian worked there, or at least someone with real Italian ancestors. There would be red leather-effect banquettes, light so dim it would flatter a gargoyle, Chianti bottles on the wall, microwave lasagna, veal with spinach and lemon sauce, zabaglione, cheap red wine by the carafe and, in the places near university campuses, 99 cent breakfasts.
Now, it seems, real Italian restaurants have to have real Italian food.
One of the people to blame is Gino Angelini. Mention his name to a Los Angeles food lover and out will pour an appreciative history. Ah, Gino! Evidently, this Rimini-born chef has left a trail of risotto from downtown (where he cooked at Rex) to Brentwood (where he cooked at Vincente) to the new restaurant row on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, where three years ago he founded Angelini Osteria. Here he gave real Italian a novel spin. He made it affordable. The secret: doing it alla claustrophobia. He packed us in.
Recently, Gino Angelini and his partner at Osteria, Elizabeth McLaury, decided to invest in additional legroom for their customers. While leaving Angelini very much alive, open and crowded, they transformed a double-decker restaurant at the corner of Orlando Avenue and 3rd Street into a sister restaurant.
The new place is called La Terza, referring to 3rd Street and possibly the third partner, Claudio Blotta. The addition has created a dream team. Blotta is the man who from 1989 to 2000 made Campanile on La Brea the best-run restaurant in L.A.
A lean, modern place
Physically, this new restaurant has a funny setup. A cunningly discreet entrance is hidden by some fencing that has created a walled garden out front. (This is more convincing than the traditional box hedge divider from the street, but the air you breathe is still 3rd Street exhaust.) You enter a lean, modern space with what seems like an endless supply of gorgeous, smiling receptionists, a bar with slipper chairs and sofas, strangely awful paneling and house plants that can survive spilled cocktails. The furnishing of the bar needs rethinking -- it says art dealer, not "make mine a double." That said, there's no faulting the drinks or the graciousness with which you're allowed to savor them.
Depending on your preferences, the luck of the draw and the size of your party, there are three seating areas: the smog garden, a round room set in what feels like an oversize modern bay window with a vaulted ceiling, or a more intimate, low-ceilinged room upstairs. It's impossible to say which of the inside rooms is better -- both are pleasant, chic modern spaces.
Under Blotta, the managers have the classically Italian, warm but formal manners of trained restaurateurs. Meanwhile, the wait staff brings a kind of "Howdy Doody," moonlighting-actor flavor to the service. One waiter might take it upon himself to read out the entire menu to you, section after section, Pages 1 and 2, as if you were blind.
No worry. Menu in hand and a wine list to your right, you are about to find out why people rave about Gino Angelini and return year after year to eat in restaurants run by Claudio Blotta.
Mondo portions, it seems, are inauthentic in real Italy. So, when the waiters urge you to do as Italians do and have four courses, consider it. In fact, order a salumi platter for the table while you think it over. These authentic Italian cold cuts go from delicate to more delicate to melting. On the plate, there's baloney's classy cousin, mortadella; maybe the best prosciutto in the world; the wine-cured beef called bresaola; and the barest of slices of something called chingale -- a whisper of fat that tastes very slightly smoked. Gino Angelini hand-cuts it to what seems an impossibly delicate state, then serves it on toast that has been seasoned with olive oil. To finish off the platter, there is a scattering of green and black olives and several chunks of aged Parmesan.
Now we're eating. When the food here is good, it's so stunning that it's hard to describe it decently. One of the kitchen's secret weapons is ravioli filled with grilled radicchio and tossed in sage butter. The radicchio's natural bitterness is given a smoky edge by being grilled before it's crimped into the delicate pasta. The butter dressing is so discreet, it leaves flavor, not grease. In a succession of visits, the kitchen was also serving these ravioli with a smoked mozzarella. Good, but not as good as the one with radicchio.
Of the seafood sampled, the outright winner was the grilled cuttlefish. In upscale places here and in Venice, real Italy, this relation of the squid is often flavored with its own ink, to a dark, faintly smoky-tasting effect. Here, the seasoning is forceful, involving a good mix of garlic, herbs, pepper and chile. Impressively, the cuttlefish isn't tough, while in many a frying pan, including my own, it goes from fresh to rubber in no time.
There are other proper fish, the kind with fins -- branzino one day, Dover sole another. They are nice in a respectable, health-minded, "I don't eat red meat" kind of way -- so by all means skip right by them straight to the rotisserie menu. Order the duck, get a friend to order the pork shank, and be prepared on both fronts to taste the meats as you've never tasted them before.
Until this restaurant came along, I never really understood why anyone would kill and devour a bird so brave, beguiling and charismatic as a duck. But since eating here, my stance has changed slightly. If a fox among us must have a few of these wonderful waterfowl, may he be Gino Angelini. The duck was slow-cooked, melting, rich enough to tempt even the Calista Flockharts of the world away from the white fish. The rotisserie pork shank produces the most deeply flavorful and succulent meat imaginable, but comes in such a big Falstaffian chunk, only the lustiest eaters should attempt it.
If you are tempted by lamb, be tempted elsewhere. For some reason, it disappoints here; its normally bright flavors get lost somewhere in the cooking.
And so to the braising pot. American recipes for osso buco have produced a lot of beef stew over the years. To taste the real thing, with the braised meat and the luscious marrow sitting in a split bone sat upright on a plate, with just a couple of tablespoons of gutsy risotto served around the side, go to this restaurant.
The wine list
Real Italian food needs wine, and in real Italy, these would all be Italian. But here in Blotta's California, the wine list opens up, with a superb list of yes, Italian, but also California, French, Spanish and Argentine choices.
This list is so democratic, so well constructed, that it's hard to go wrong. The big names from Piedmont and Tuscany are there, but you needn't go with a big-ticket Gaja or Conterno. There are superb food wines, such as a Guigal Cotes du Rhone, for $8 a glass; respectable bottles in every category for $25; and by the time you're spending $40 -- a pittance in swankier places -- you're drinking a terrific Scubla Sauvignon Blanc from the Friuli region; for $42, a Carema from Ferrando in Piedmont; and for $55, a gutsy Barbera d'Alba "Scarrone" from Vietti, whose tannins make it a perfect food wine.
The spirit of iconoclasm that informs the wine list carries over to the olive oil. Ask the manager what oil he's pouring into a dipping plate, and he'll say, "Nunez de Prado." It's a Spanish retort to Tuscany.
Desserts. Real Italians routinely claim they don't eat them. As if to explain why, at Christmas, they inflict the disgusting mound of chestnuts and cream, Monte Bianco, on tourists. Happily, La Terza has a deeply Californian streak when it comes to desserts. Campanile chef Nancy Silverton developed a dessert menu to match Gino Angelini's food, and they brought in a pastry chef, Ann Kirk, from the nearby restaurant Lucques to execute them.
Silverton's impact on California desserts started 20 years ago at Spago, when she began systematically draining excess sugar from them, and replacing mere sweetness with flavors from fruit, chocolate, cream, flour and nuts. With the La Terza menu, she takes the process to a new, radical level, and it's thrilling. A chocolate and almond cake has a pleasing, biscuit-like texture, and the chocolate flavor plays off salt as much as sugar, then recedes before the cloying point crossed by almost all other pastry chefs. In accompanying it with a chocolate-chip milk ice, Silverton delivers flavor and coolness but dodges the overwhelming richness of much ice cream.
If there are ricotta fritters with cherry juice on the menu, order them, eat them, don't share, don't talk. If your friends have ordered Torta della Nonna, or Grandmother's tart, a beautifully judged cream tart topped with toasted pine nuts, they won't be marauding anyway. They'll be too busy eating.
The beauty of this restaurant with real Italian food, polyglot wines and California desserts is that you don't worry about sharing. One visit won't do. You'll be coming back.
La Terza Rating: *** Location: 8384 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 782-8384.
Ambience: Modern, minimal. People make the place and the food makes the people happy, so it works.
Service: The management and wine service are knowledgeable, but as yet, the wait staff can be gauche.
Price: Dinner antipasti, $9 to $16; pasta, $14 to $17; fish and meat, $24 to $38; desserts, $9.
Best dishes: Ravioli with grilled radicchio, slow-cooked pork shank, rotisserie duck, everything from the rotisserie, grilled cuttlefish, cream tart with pine nuts, fruit fritters, sauteed rapini with chile.
Wine list: The list is exceptional, with unusually high-quality wines available by the glass. Corkage, $15.
Details: Breakfast, 7 to 11:30 a.m. Monday to Saturday, 7 to 10 a.m. Sunday. Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Brunch, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m. daily. Full bar. Valet parking.
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.