With the barrage of notices about new restaurants coming from all sides, sometimes a worthy older one slips through the cracks without a full review. When it opened 3 years ago, I did my due diligence and went to Amarone, the tiny 40-seat Italian on Sunset Boulevard just up from the Viper Room. Maybe it was too early: I remember thinking it was nothing special. Wrongly, as it turns out.
When I went back recently I found a restaurant that, despite being on a gritty block, really does feel like a little neighborhood place in Italy.
It's in the flavors of Emilia-Romagna on the plate and in the efficient yet warm service from Alessandro Polastri, who owns the restaurant with chef Giuseppe Musso. Both come from Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy, and the two have known each other practically from childhood. Polastri grew up in Bologna, Musso in Rimini on the coast (where Gino Angelini of Angelini Osteria grew up too).
It's also in the look and feel of the place, a narrow storefront with just four tables in the tiny front dining room and a handful more upstairs on a mezzanine accessed by a steep staircase. Pretty or stylish it isn't. This is not the design-conscious Italy of Cassina or Alessi. Amarone has the cluttered, lived-in look of countless little restaurants and trattorias in Italy. Bottles of wine are lined up on a shelf. Crisp white tablecloths are whipped off in a hurry, the table reset, a screen moved back to accommodate a walk-in guest and his friends.
When you sit down, no one tries to pour a puddle of olive oil onto a plate. Here, if you insist on the American habit of dipping your bread in olive oil, you'll have to pour it yourself from the bottle of oil on the table. The bread is piadina, the dense, delicious flatbread of Emilia-Romagna, and slabs of fluffy focaccia, both baked in house. To garnish the piadina, there are strips of sweet roasted peppers, olives and small squares of milky scamorza cheese.
Another plus: Instead of a mediocre wine list put together by a distributor, Amarone has a serious one compiled by Polastri, who is knowledgeable and passionate about Italian wines. And though he has some distinguished Barolos, Tuscan reds and namesake Amarones for the deep-pocketed, he also has quite a few interesting wines under $50, including a dry Malvasia and a Ribolla Gialla.
That Ribolla is wonderful with the sweet, chewy seared octopus set on a bed of cannellini beans and garnished with shaved celery, good olive oil and a squirt of lemon. Or with fritto misto, which on the night I try it isn't much of a mixed fry, consisting entirely of just calamari and batons of zucchini fried and ready to dip in a spicy tomato sauce.
Carpaccio di pesce spada covers the entire plate with fine slices of raw swordfish, the better to decorate with finely diced sun-dried tomatoes and dark olives, pink peppercorns, a touch of orange zest and a swirl of herb-infused olive oil. It works. Order burrata here and you get a generous amount of the creamy fresh cheese paired with red and gold beets streaked with scarlet. So vinegary they almost taste pickled, the beets are a brilliant contrast to the burrata. Torta di melanzane, a tall stack of eggplant layered with tomatoes and ricotta cheese with a fragrant basil sauce, is on the rich side, but worth every calorie.
Let's face it, Emilia-Romagna isn't known for lean cuisine. It's known for egg-rich pasta — tortellini in brodo, lasagne, tagliatelle. One night I zero in on tagliatelle alla Bolognese, hoping theirs will be a real Bolognese. Polastri says of course it is; in fact, it's his mother's recipe — "and I'm from Bologna." Furthermore, he says, it's made with pork, beef and veal — "and the shoulder of the prosciutto." Convinced, I order it and it's terrific, a complex and gentle meat sauce ladled over the noodles. Now this is Bolognese! It puts most other, lazier versions to shame.
Gnocchi napped in Taleggio cheese is excellent too, one of the better gnocchi dishes I've had in L.A.
On a first visit, it takes a while to realize that Polastri is virtually the entire front of the house, delivering dishes, taking orders, pouring wine, running up and down the stairs all evening. "It's how I keep my figure," he jokes, patting his trim belly. And it's why this restaurant feels so familial. Whenever the place is open, he and the chef are there.
Though tortellini aren't on the menu right now, occasionally tortelloni, up-sized tortellini, are offered as a special. They're big, awkward fellows, stuffed with shredded braised short rib and sauced simply in butter and sage, more like meat wrapped in pasta than meat-stuffed. Pappardelle al prosciutto, wide egg noodles with cherry tomatoes and crispy shreds of prosciutto, is tasty and light. A special of spaghetti in a simple tomato sauce with nuggets of lobster is very nice too.
Main courses are limited and mostly classics. There's a bistecca, of course. In this case, a hefty rib-eye simply grilled and served with vegetables and potatoes, which is fine, but nothing special. Or a tender rack of baby lamb marinated in herbs. But for me, the real standout is the veal Milanese, a veal chop butterflied and pounded thin, breaded and fried to a deep gold. It's crisp and not a bit greasy, so big it almost doesn't fit on the plate. Don't forget to squirt a little lemon over.
Fish? Just a couple, the best of which is Mediterranean striped bass cooked with capers and tomatoes and served in a sauce of the juices and olive oil. It has some real flavor and it's nice to get a fish that has a little bit more going on than one that's simply grilled. The chef takes some care with the vegetables, most nights serving a pretty bouquet of veggies — asparagus stalks, broccoli, yellow patty pan squash and roasted potatoes.
For dessert, I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm recommending the tiramisu. It's less sweet than most, and you can really taste the espresso in it. The panna cotta gets points for its dense creaminess but could benefit from less gelatin. Finish that off with an espresso and you're all set. No, wait, here come complimentary glasses of Moscato d'Asti, the lovely sparkling wine from Piedmont.
The company is entertaining too. Amarone could hardly be called a scene, yet it has its many faithful fans — young Hollywood, old Hollywood, holdouts from the music business. And on one memorable night a gentleman all in white, who proceeded to tuck his napkin into his daringly unbuttoned shirt, the better for his date to ogle. He's a movie star, or so he happened to mention, quite loudly.
Maybe he is. Maybe somebody else here is. Whatever, we're all here scarfing up pasta and veal Milanese just as if we were in Italy. And the fact that in reality we're cosseted in this charming Italian restaurant on one of Sunset Boulevard's less glamorous blocks makes it all the more delicious.
AMARONE KITCHEN & WINE
RATING: Two stars
LOCATION: 8868 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Larrabee Street), West Hollywood; (310) 652-2233; http://www.amarone-la.com.
PRICE: Appetizers, $12 to $18; soups and salads, $9; pasta, $14 to $18; main courses, $24 to $42; desserts, $8 to $10. Corkage fee, $25.
DETAILS: Open for dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Lot parking behind the Viper Room on Larrabee Street, $5, with validation.
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.