Food

Domenico Ristorante: innovative Italian dining in Silver Lake

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Brentwood is rife with Italian restaurants opened by Italian waiters who used to work somewhere else. Kiss. Kiss. Ciao. Add in a copycat menu of L.A. Italian dishes, preferably Tuscan-inspired, a celebrity or two disguised in scruffy attire: success, even in this cockamamie economy. Everybody loves pasta.

Silver Lake just got its own example of the genre when Domenico Ristorante moved into the former Michelangelo, which in turn moved farther east on Rowena to the site of a failed Mexican place. But restaurants playing musical chairs is a whole other story.

Domenico is named for Domenico Frasca, who grew up in the Naples area of Italy, worked in France and for the past decade was a waiter at Drago serving spaghetti bottarga and swordfish to Santa Monica Italophiles. But this 3-month-old ristorante has more going for it than the typical Brentwood Italian. It's small and cozy, has a sweet little sidewalk terrace, and a chef with initiative and spark. The menu has its hits and misses, but it's not the same old same-old. For that we can be grateful.

Designed by Vanni Vezzosi and L.A.-based Ahmad Boyer, Domenico strikes a contemporary note with a linear crystal chandelier and stark white, art-filled walls. It's a small space, noisier inside than on the semi-covered sidewalk terrace in front, where you can watch the goings-on at LA Mill and Reservoir across the street. The glare of the 7-Eleven sign through a small opening doesn't add much to the atmosphere, though.

Frasca made a smart choice in his chef. He's Michael Young, an American of Italian descent who has cooked around Southern California (with Angelo Auriana at Valentino and with Salvatore Marino at Il Grano) as well as in Parma, Italy. He has taught at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Pasadena and brings an American's curiosity and passion for Italian food to his menu larded with regional dishes.

You could start with a plate of salumi -- high-quality prosciutto di Parma and thinly sliced felino salame lined up with nuggets of well-aged Parmigiano Reggiano and served with homemade mostardo (a spicy fruit relish). A perfect summery salad pairs shaved raw baby artichokes with biting wild arugula doused in lemon and olive oil. The chef fries his calamari in a light batter with whole slices of lemon, a nice touch, but then sets it all on top of a romesco sauce that makes the calamari soggy. Beef carpaccio gets a quirky, seasonal garnish of asparagus spears and boschetto cheese laced with truffle. He's clearly worked on the plating to show off what he can do.

Delicious elegance

Stuffed zucchini blossoms, a special one night, are lovely. He's used baby zucchini with the blossoms still attached, closed the petals around a filling of cheese and anchovy, then fried the whole thing in a delicate lacy batter. Elegant and delicious.

And his version of Caprese salad is a surprise: a hollowed-out tomato filled with fior di latte turned over so all you see at first is the red ball of the tomato. But what's missing is the luscious interplay of the inside of the tomato against the milky cheese.

Sometimes dishes are more successful when he plays it perfectly straight as in the stracciatella soup, a light chicken broth laced with fresh spinach and marble-sized chicken meatballs. An egg is stirred in at the last minute to make the "rags." Simple and satisfying.

Because of its size and location, Domenico is very much a neighborhood place. One night a couple with their weeks-old baby enjoy an early dinner on the sidewalk terrace, taking turns holding the sweet-tempered baby. When they leave, they stuff their half-full bottle of wine in a backpack and wheel the stroller (and baby) down the street. At other tables, friends are celebrating someone's new job, or just catching up.

The restaurant doesn't have a wine license yet. Hey, you can try three pastas or more for what would be the price of a bottle of wine on the list at any other restaurant.

And you will very much want to sample some of the pasta. Parma -- and the Emilia-Romagna region in general -- is renowned for the quality of its fresh egg pasta, and Young has learned his lessons well.

First, he's making delicious little agnolotti with a savory blue potato stuffing and covered in a blizzard of summer truffle shavings. The menu describes it as black truffle, but it's not the same as the French black truffle, not nearly as expensive or seductive, but plenty good on its own.

Northern influence

The chef also makes tortelli (larger than the diminutive tortellini) filled with sweet-tart red beets and lightly sauced in butter, Parmigiano and poppy seeds, an influence from northern Italy's Austro-Hungarian past. There's a fine linguine with clams with a touch of hot chile pepper, every element in balance, and large-scale maccheroncini all' Amatriciana, durum-wheat pasta tossed in a loose tomato sauce with onions and guanciale.

I'm less fond of the pastas with meat sauces, which tend to be on the heavy side, and the risotto, which tends to be stiff and dry and enriched with too much cheese.

As for main courses, you'll want the quail stuffed to bursting with black rice from the Veneto and Savoy cabbage, which cooks down into soft, tasty ribbons. It's served with a vellutata di Mondragola -- don't you just love the way "Mondragola" rolls off the tongue? It means ginseng. Maybe it's good for me, I don't know -- its flavor didn't make an impression one way or the other.

Braised rabbit in a black olive sauce over a bed of polenta makes a wonderful light summer main course. The tagliata -- prime culotte steak grilled and then sliced -- is very nice too. Lamb chops make an earthy dish served with braised Castelluccio lentils from Umbria. But avoid the veal braciola: It's like shoe leather.

This is not Italian cooking that will rock your world, but for Silver Lake and Los Feliz, it's major.

Outside on that terrace with people walking and cycling by, it's summer in the city. Of course, you can splurge calories on decent versions of tiramisu (less creamy than most) and torta della nonna made with ricotta and topped with pine nuts. But for hot weather, nothing beats Domenico's affogato di limone. That would be lemon sorbetto, a little on the sweet side, this one, "drowned" in Prosecco, the sparkling wine from the Veneto.

Add in a cup of espresso here (or dare I suggest across the street at LA Mill), and it's as an Italian an evening as you can get in this part of the world.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

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