RESTAURANT REVIEW : This Pair of Chiantis Equals Two So-So Outings : Old standbys prove truest at Old-World Chianti; chic Cucina offers uneven fare.


In the beginning, there was Chianti, the darkest restaurant in town. And then Chianti gave birth to Cucina, a child of light and clatter that became the prototype for the 10-million noisy, wide-open, elbow-to-elbow Italian restaurants proliferating all over the country. Chianti Cucina remains distinctive for preserving its two-tone nature, its marriage of opposites. The dark and the bright. The shadowy cave and the sun-filled kitchen. The perfect place for anonymous assignations; the classic spot to see and be seen.

Recently, Chianti Cucina hired a new chef. The food for this Old World dinner house/chic pasta joint comes from one kitchen, so I stopped in to see how he handled the challenge of dual menus.

I went to Chianti first, with a female friend. Two women, I was reminded again, are a dining combination too often doomed behind the proverbial potted palm. Indeed, we were offered a choice of the drafty table by the front door, or a tiny, cramped corner in the banquette way, way, way in the back under the stag head with wide antlers. We chose the stag.

Chianti is dark, proudly dark; the pretty little lamps house the weakest of flashlight bulbs. We squinted, moving closer and closer to the menu until it looked as if we were snuffling about, trying to smell the words rather than read them. Only then, like Virgil guiding Dante, did the waiter appear with the famous penlights so we could choose our dinners.


At this birthplace of restaurant hipness, the service is cheerfully impersonal, and the dress code seems to be fashionably casual; that is, anything fashionable goes except suits and ties.

Our dinners were OK. Just OK. An appetizer of prosciutto-wrapped endive and radicchio served with lasciviously plump marinated mushrooms was the best thing we ate all night. A cold, juicy seafood salad was refreshing, but otherwise unremarkable. The Caesar was under-dressed, dry and grainy with too much dry, ground cheese. I hate to be marrow-minded, but osso buco made from turkey “shanks” served on a bland bed of soft polenta only made me long for the classic veal bones and saffron-tinged risotto. Curiously, the more traditional dish is served over on the Cucina side, leading us to wonder if the inevitable is taking place: Is the child becoming the parent, the parent the child?

Next, I visited Cucina with two other women and we were ushered into a small back room paved with Cucina’s signature, noise-bouncing white tiles. It was a little like eating in a converted shower area. Petals of seared tuna with a small salad of radicchio and arugula was the favorite appetizer. There was no favorite entree; mesquite-grilled salmon and its complement of vegetables was dull, and a lasagne of porcini mushrooms, spinach and potatoes was besotted by a cloying heavy cream sauce. Risotto with Muscovy duck ragout was chalky, loaded with too many rosemary needles, inedible.

Return visits to both restaurants yielded better seating (I came with men), but I never did have anything approaching a transcendent eating experience on either side.

At Chianti, old standbys prove truest: The beef carpaccio was delicious drizzled with good oil, but I wished the celery were less chunky and the truffles more flavorful. The veal chop is classic: thick, beautifully grilled; too bad it’s served with more spiritless polenta.

Perfectly good scallops, clams, a split langoustine, swordfish and green-lipped mussels swam in a tasty brodo that’s ultimately a little too thick, too tomatoey; spoonfuls off the bottom are like seafood-spiked marinara sauce.

At Cucina, we found capellini alla checca good if a bit too cooked, salads undistinctive, fedelini (thinner than spaghetti, thicker than capellini ) with lobster hearty and satisfying.

Despite a definite sag in the cooking, I left Chianti Cucina with plenty of residual affection for the place. One feels confident the kitchen will rally.


Oh, and I take it back about having no transcendent moment with the food: The famous creme brulee , with its gorgeously smooth texture and buried berries is as good a bowlful as you’ll find.

* Chianti Cucina, 7383 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 653-8333. Cucina open seven days for lunch and dinner. Chianti open seven nights for dinner only. Full bar. Valet parking. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $35-$75.