Inviting Italians who live here to come out to an Italian restaurant can be a daunting prospect, at least when we're talking those who can cook, and cook well. They have very specific ideas about how things should be done and don't suffer indifferent or lazy food easily. Believe me, you don't want your guests complaining that they would have eaten better at home.
So when I asked an Italian friend to try the new Hostaria del Piccolo in Santa Monica, I knew I was taking a chance. But the restaurant does share the same owners as the beloved Piccolo Venice (not to be confused with Il Piccolino in WeHo). That's a pretty good recommendation in itself. As it turned out, I needn't have worried. The food here — pizza, pasta and more — really tastes like Italy, comforting and familiar. Normale, as an Italian would say.
The Venice restaurant has the advantage of an adorable location, on a small street just off the Venice boardwalk. Anyone nostalgic for a buca or small family restaurant will feel right at home there with the kitchen in full view. Hostaria del Piccolo is housed in a contemporary building at the corner of Broadway and 6th Street. It's much larger, built out in a sleek contemporary style. Prices are lower too.
Once we were seated in the front dining room, my exacting Milanese friend immediately looked over the cardboard menu. "Interesting, for antipasti, they have veal tongue in tonnata (tuna sauce) and wild boar sausage with polenta. Let's try those," she said, with real enthusiasm. "What about fried pigs' ears or frico made with Montasio cheese and potatoes?" I wondered.
Yes and yes.
It turns out manager and partner Christian Bertolini, the slender guy dressed like an Italian graduate student in shirt worn loose over his corduroy pants, comes from the Trentino area. His parents have a hotel at a ski resort there. My Milanese friend used to ski nearby, and she found some typical dishes from the mountains there on the menu. The rich, evocative melding of grilled Montasio cheese and waxy yellow potatoes is one. That rustic wild boar sausage, bursting with juices and served with bright gold grilled polenta squares, is another.
The emerald salsa verde has a vinegary kick, perfect to cut the delicious porkiness of the fried pig's ear. Vitello tonnato, sliced roasted veal with a creamy tuna sauce, is the classic. But here, instead of roast veal, chilled slices of veal tongue fan across the plate, covered in that tangy tonnata sauce and decorated with cubed tomato and capers.
So far, so very good. On other visits, I tried the baby back ribs, which are very plain, the way they do them in Italy, accompanied by fat brown beans, a hearty and satisfying dish. Fried calamari comes with crisp tentacles in a loose, bright-tasting tomato sauce. Don't miss the mixed black and white ravioli with zigzag edges stuffed with Venetian salt cod, then fried and served with a bagna cauda of anchovy, olive oil and garlic. That's a perfect one to share with a white wine from the Alto Adige or maybe a Movia Sauvignon Blanc from Slovenia, just across the Italian border.
Waiters are comfortable in their own skins. What a relief that no one feels obligated to indulge in waiter-speak. I didn't hear "excuse my reach" or "how is everything tasting?" Not once. Servers are friendly and also efficient, eager to have you eat well. The place is kid-friendly too, with a small section of the menu devoted to "little foodies."
With its plain decor, wood-clad walls and rustic wooden tables, the restaurant reminds me of a contemporary Italian somewhere in the mountains. There's a small bar just to the left of the entrance. In the workaday open kitchen, you can see cooks open the maw of the pizza oven to slide in a round of dough. No wood-burning oven, though: Getting a permit where one doesn't already exist is virtually impossible these days.
The Hostaria makes a big commitment to pizza with a page-long list, plus more that are pizze bianche, i.e., no tomato sauce. You can also order your pizza with a gluten-free dough made from soy, rice, corn and a little potato flour, ensuring that no one is left out of the pizza fest. There's even a squid ink dough that has an intriguing funk and charcoal color.
Our Romanesco pie, one of the white pizzas, is topped with thick rounds of sausage, romanesco, roasted garlic and dotted with molten pools of mozzarella. The crust is thin but a bit neutral in flavor.
Pretty, pretty good, as Larry David likes to say in "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
Margherita is made with mozzarella di bufala as a matter of course. Mezzanota features mozzarella and ham, along with roasted potato and an egg atop a well-flavored tomato sauce.
Germano Minin, the chef and also a partner, is no slouch with the pastas either. They're cooked al dente, not over-sauced and served in Italian-sized portions, meant more as first courses than main courses. I liked pappardelle with a rich roasted tomato sauce, nuggets of mozzarella and eggplant scented with sweet basil. Tagliatelle is sauced in a fine beef ragù, and agnolotti get a lovely filling of ricotta and speck (smoked ham). Chicken lasagna made with fontina cheese is not too rich, a lighter variation on the usual meat sauce.
The handful of main courses are basic but very decent — a chicken breast stuffed with ricotta and fresh spinach, grilled lamb loin with arugula, a fish of the day — and an excellent Milanese orecchia di elefante, which would be a pounded, breaded and sauteed veal chop as big as an elephant's ear.
Desserts are kind of fun too. Panzarotti are basically ravioli with an apple stuffing and a vanilla cinnamon sauce for dipping. Pear carpaccio is cut so each thin slice is pear-shaped and comes with a mound of chocolate pudding in the middle. You can also get a couple of sweet pizzas, but I wouldn't recommend it.
The word hostaria is related to hospitality. And there is something so welcoming about this Santa Monica newcomer: The groups of friends relaxing over dinner, the clutch of locals hanging in the bar with their aperitivi — or glasses of wine. It's open all afternoon and easygoing enough that you can stop in for a pizza or pasta and basta, or a Milanese and a salad. Just what the doctor ordered.
Hostaria del Piccolo
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
Location: 606 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 393-6633; hostariadelpiccolo.com
Price: Pizze, $12 to $18, antipasti, $10 to $24; salads, $10 to $12; pasta, $16 to $18; meat and fish, $18 to $24; desserts, $8 to $10.
Details: Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; open for brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Full bar. Corkage, $15. Valet parking, $5, from 6 p.m.