In Venice, Italy, friends who've met in the street will go off to drink un ombra, slang for a small glass of wine. That's the name of a new Italian restaurant that opened quietly a few months ago in Studio City. Chef-owner Michael J. Young is crazy enough about wine that he's taken courses at UCLA to learn more about it. He also picked up a lot about Italian wine working as sous chef under Angelo Auriana at Valentino way back when and with Celestino Drago at Drago Santa Monica. He also worked in Parma, Italy, at one point, which must be where he picked up his pasta-making skills.
I last had Young's cooking at Domenico's in Silver Lake almost two years ago. Now that he has his own place, he has the freedom to buy and cook what he wants. Every couple of months he redrafts the menu to reflect the season. Most nights he also has a couple of specials going, such as sea urchin pasta or heirloom tomato panzanella.
He seems to be reveling in his newfound freedom, yet it's never all about him. He's anxious to see how his customers like each new dish. I'd say he's coming into his own at Ombra Ristorante, cooking with confidence and attention to detail. He's quick to see what doesn't work, and that errant dish is soon off the menu. Ombra is more than just another neighborhood Italian.
Stop in at the Cahuenga Boulevard restaurant for a glass of dry Moscato from the Veneto or a Vermentino from Sardinia and an amuse of arancini, fried rice balls with hearts of smoked mozzarella that strings like telephone wire. His are triangular in shape, rolled in breadcrumbs and perfectly browned, his way of welcoming guests to Ombra.
Young is an easygoing and warm presence when he steps into the dining room or brings out a taste of caponata, the Sicilian relish of eggplant, onions, currants, pine nuts and capers in a sweet-sour sauce. I can't get enough of the intricately laced flavors.
Open the menu and you'll quickly realize it's not just the same old L.A. Italian dishes. You might find a crackling crisp round of porchetta redolent of herbs and garlic as an antipasti, served with a terrific house-made green tomato mostarda. One night a panzanella made with chunks of heirloom tomatoes tossed with cucumber, red onions, day-old bread and sweet basil in olive oil and vinegar impresses. I like his simple Tuscan white bean salad adorned with jumbo white shrimp and capers too. And the octopus with diced potatoes and olives. Young learned to make pasta when he worked at L'Ambasciata, halfway between Cremona and Mantova in Italy.
The pastas are excellent and can be ordered as half or full orders. Cavatelli are small, ridged pasta that curl in on themselves, like shells, tossed in a tomato sauce with Dungeness crab, spring onions and arugula. Fusilloni means big fusilli, the better to grab every bit of pesto — loose, fragrant, very green, a handful of fava beans tossed in and shaved Pecorino. His garganelli (hand-rolled tube pasta) in a spicy salami sauce is a terrific dish. So is the maccarronis from Sardinia in a ragù Genovese made with hand-chopped pork and veal — and lots of onions.
In a sea of Italian restaurants, Ombra feels very personal. That's because Young is involved in every aspect. He's the chef and wine buyer and is responsible for the look of the restaurant. The dining room is simple and minimalist — dark wood chairs, white tablecloths, the only ornamentation being vases of flowers and a panel of antique Venetian wallpaper with stylized mermaids on the back wall. When he realized the noise level was too high, he added sound panels, something I wish more restaurateurs would do. It works to mitigate the noise and doesn't cost all that much.
For a light secondo, or main course, you can't beat the tonno spiedini, huge chunks of marinated grilled tuna served with that sweet and vinegary Sicilian caponata. Rustic pork sausages grilled with fennel and grapes are first rate. And stracotto, braised brisket, is one of the best around, especially with fresh horseradish and a tender white corn polenta. I wasn't so taken with the wild boar chops special. They may be wild but don't taste much different than an ordinary pork chop.
His sous chef has been working with him for many years, and between the two of them, they're able to turn out a small sophisticated menu. But then again, the restaurant wasn't really full any of the times I dined there, which is a shame. How they will fare with a full house remains to be seen.
For dessert, stick with the simplest, such as a plain ricotta cheesecake or cantucci, the famous hard biscotti, delicious dipped in a glass of sweet wine or with an espresso. One night, he served peaches cooked in simple syrup with softly whipped cream and crushed amaretti cookies. More complicated desserts are not the kitchen's strong suit.
The chef's passion for wine is reflected in the mostly Italian wine list filled with little-known, affordable wines, such as Roccafiore "Bianco Fiordaliso" from Umbria at $36 or Colutta Refosco from Friuli at $39. Except for a few, all the wines are under, sometimes well under, $50. A good dozen are also offered by the glass and/or carafe. He also has a remarkably modest corkage fee: just $8 per bottle.
He's calling Mondays "Notte Slow," or "Slow Night," when he offers a fixed three-course menu at $35, as well as a $12 carafe of wine. Check the website for each week's menu. He also serves lunch on weekdays. Young is a real worker.
Ombra is just what it's supposed to be: an authentic Italian neighborhood restaurant from a chef-owner cooking with pride and attention in his own place for the first time. Prices are moderate, service is friendly. Opening your own place in this economy is always a bold move, but I think this is one restaurant that will make it.
Rating: two stars
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.
****: Outstanding on every level.
**: Very good.
No star: Poor to satisfactory.
3737 Cahuenga Blvd., Studio City, (818) 985-7337, http://www.ombrala.com.
Antipasti and snacks, $11 to $14; pasta and risotto, $12 to $19; main courses, $21 to $29; desserts and cheese, $7. Corkage fee, $8.
Open for dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday. And for lunch noon to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday Valet parking, $6.