On the way to Florian, a 6-month-old restaurant named after the celebrated 18th-Century coffeehouse on St. Mark's Square in Venice, I went over my favorite Venetian dishes in my mind: baccala mantecato (salt cod whipped with milk or cream), sarde in saor (fresh sardines marinated in a sweet, vinegary sauce), tiny cuttlefish stewed in their ink, risi e bisi (rice and fresh peas), fegato alla veneziana , arguably the most famous of Venetian dishes--calves' liver cooked with onions and a splash of vinegar.
Not one of these classic Venetian dishes was on the menu.
The setting is lovely, however. I'm charmed by the beautifully painted panels of still lifes and pale attentuated torsos (near the ladies' room, a disembodied hand tweaks a rosy nipple). Old-fashioned wall sconces and silk shades edged with braid cast a soft light that is reflected in round, bejeweled mirrors. With only a slight suspension of belief, the decor, inherited from the previous tenant, Tryst, suggests a restaurant on one of the watery city's back canals.
Aside from that, though, I have trouble understanding why Florian considers itself a Venetian restaurant. The menu includes dishes from all over Italy--from Rome, Sardinia, Bologna, Milan, Tuscany and Naples--while only a handful of true Venetian dishes make the cut: pasta e fagioli , a fish soup, pasta and risotto cooked with various combinations of seafood--and tiramisu, of course. The menu is the culinary equivalent of Venetian gondoliers singing "O Sole Mio" or "Santa Lucia" for so long that few visitors are aware the songs extol Naples, not Venice.
A restaurant's decor, music and menu all do their part to create the illusion that, for this evening, we really are in Tuscany or Provence or New Orleans, at least in spirit. Call the place Mediterranean. Call it Italian. Call it Venetian. Call it whatever you like, but the food should bear more than a passing resemblance to its namesake cuisine. If the kitchen concentrated on authentic Venetian cooking (hard to find in Venice, admittedly) and cooked it well, Florian would have my heartfelt respect. Instead, we get many of the same old standbys.
That said, Florian serves decent, but certainly not memorable, Italian food. What sets it apart is the charming setting and the professionalism of the ever-present Tancredi De Luca, previously maitre d' at Toscana. Chef Enrico Trova gives a number of dishes a California twist. Mostly this consists of turning every other plate into a salad. An antipasto of bresaola , a ruddy cured beef, and Parmesan shavings is heaped with arugula leaves, and the subtly delicious swordfish carpaccio gets its bit of greens, too. Penne alla arrabbiata , a classic dried pasta dish, is dressed up with grilled chicken, which makes about as much sense as adding poultry to Caesar salad.
I liked both the wonderful rustic pasta e fagioli and the rough-textured minestrone. Pastas have their ups and downs. The spaghetti alla bottarga , made with pressed gray mullet roe and tossed with toasted bread crumbs and arugula, has a faint tang of the sea. Tagliatelle ai profumi delle Langhe was a disappointment, not for the fragrant sauce of porcini and vegetables but for the quality of the pasta itself. These heavy noodles little resembled the glorious, tender and silky tagliatelle from Piedmont. The risotto Billy Wilder is a confetti of colorful vegetables.
The mixed grill of seafood with lemon and capers is consistently one of the best dishes on the menu. A breaded Milanese-style veal chop comes with oily thick-cut potato chips for a cholesterol-clogging main course. The lamb in bread crust arrived more or less medium-rare, but less than appealing wrapped in a soggy white-bread blanket. On the other hand, osso buco , gentle in flavor and texture, is a respectable-enough version.
Florian is very pleasant weekdays at lunch, when you can order from an extensive menu of cold and hot stuzzichini , described as little dishes to mix-and-match tapas-style. With the French doors open, the glare of the light along La Cienega comes close, very close, to the quality of light reflected off the water in Venice. Nibbling on half a dozen little dishes--grilled-chicken-and-potato salad perfumed with balsamic vinegar, prosciutto with sliced pear, a thin-crusted pizza topped with fresh arugula and pecorino shavings--the illusion was good enough that I almost expected to hear "Santa Lucia."
Florian Ristorante, 401 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 289 - 1600. Open nightly for dinner and Monday through Friday for lunch. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $45 to $80.