When I pull up to Ado, the new Italian restaurant that's moved into the old Amuse space on Main Street in Venice, chef-owner Antonio Mure is standing in his whites in the doorway, his dark hair pulled into a ponytail, so chic he looks as if he's waiting for Vogue photographer Steven Meisel to show up any minute.
The place is adorable, a yellow two-story building that was built in 1908 and was once used to house railroad workers -- before it became the coffeehouse Van Gogh's Ear and later Brooke Williamson's short-lived Amuse cafe.
Mure has put in time behind the stoves at Locanda Veneta, Piccolo and his own Melograno, which closed earlier this year. His partner is Paolo Cesaro of Via Veneto and the recently shuttered Hidden, both in Santa Monica.
Compared with Melograno's focus on the chef's native Piedmont, Ado's menu seems scattershot, a mix of conventional L.A. Italian dishes and others dressed up with fancy ingredients to appeal to somebody's idea of luxe. It's as if he decided authentic and regional don't work, scratch those and go with what he thinks plays in L.A. -- big portions, luxury ingredients, fancy plating.
And why name it Ado? It's easily confused with Ago: too close to Ago for comfort. In fact, I had to head off a couple of guests who were heading to Agostino Sciandri's well-known West Hollywood spot.
The space is a natural for a trattoria serving rustic authentic fare. But Mure and Cesaro have other ideas.
I love walking past the chef's table downstairs with a view of the kitchen, up the narrow wooden stairs to the upstairs dining room with its bare wood beams and soft brown walls. The windows are open to the breeze, and there's a tiny terrace outside with a few tables fit close together. It feels very bohemian and enchanting. And incredibly loud as the partying crowd gets deeper into their wine.
Menus are handed out. "Water -- sparkling or still?" The wine list. I look in vain for a mid-priced Chianti Classico or Ruffino, a lusty Barbera or even an Orvieto I'd like to drink. But this list has only a handful of wines under $50. The one Chianti I find is a 2003 Capannelle Riserva at $83. Pass. If you want to spend more, a lot more, you can drink Tignanello, Solaia or Sassacaia, all priced above $300. And wines by the glass? Dull, dull, dull. Finally, I settle on a bottle of Speri Valpolicella Ripasso for $46. Meanwhile, a second bottle of water has been opened (without anyone asking) and poured and we're already down $14 for water before we've even taken a bite.
High hopes dashed
I've enjoyed Mure's cooking at Piccolo and at Melograno, so I'm looking forward to this meal. At Ado, though, he seems to be off his game. Some dishes are fine, oddly enough, more appetizers and main courses than pastas. And some of his more elaborate ideas seem woefully wrongheaded.
The best dish in the house? Crudo d'orata -- thinly sliced raw sea bream garnished with red onion, capers, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. The fish is very fresh, the taste bright and citrusy. Passed around the table, the crudo disappears in a flash.
Instead of the standard beef carpaccio, Mure sometimes makes his with buffalo. It's a beautiful rosette of overlapping slices of raw beef with a thatch of baby arugula in the center and a drizzle of mustard. Quail prosciutto is made in house, slices of the tiny cured breast with a swirl of Gorgonzola sauce. It has a mild, gamy flavor, but, really quail prosciutto is just a bit twee, don't you think?
And things go downhill from there. I'm intrigued by the grilled cuttlefish with fava beans, but what arrives is a tall bowl of pureed fava -- in other words soup -- garnished with a piece of cuttlefish. Who could eat this much bland fava puree? And the poor cuttlefish is drowned. Warm baby artichoke and crab salad is just awful. Turned out of a cylindrical mold, it has the texture of wet sawdust. The crab is tired, the whole thing salty.
Waiters seem intent on turning the tables, interrupting your conversation to relate the specials, refill water and take your order.
Now here comes the shell game: The server tells you about the special, tagliatelle with black truffles, neglecting to mention the price. Or that these are not the famed black truffles gourmandes go crazy over. They are the much, much less expensive summer truffles from Italy. Lacking much scent or flavor, they bear little resemblance to the dreamy black Perigord truffle, which is what is usually meant by "black truffle."
Making matters worse, the waiter tells us that at $35, these are "very inexpensive considering that they say white truffles from Alba are going to be $3,000 a pound this fall." Irrelevant! These truffles have nothing to do with white truffles! Since this deliberate truffle confusion has been going since Mure's Piccolo days, I can only assume there are lots of gullible eaters out there eager enough for the truffle experience that they go for it.
All that said, I order the tagliatelle for science. Table-side, Cesaro shaves enough truffles over my pasta that it looks like the noodles are covered in oak leaves. The taste is subtle, very nice, actually, but not in any way comparable to the best truffles. It's the misrepresentation that angers me.
The same chewy noodles make a terrific summer pasta dish tossed with fried zucchini, teardrop tomatoes and olive oil with a slick of walnut pesto underneath. Now this is the Mure I remember.
On the heavy side
But then we have strozzapreti -- "priest stranglers," in this case, ricotta and spinach dumplings paired with a meaty Bolognese sauce. Brown butter and sage would be better; this is just overkill. Ravioli stuffed with foie gras, cabbage and foie gras veer over the top too. In addition to being more suitable for cold weather.
The menu barely acknowledges the season. On a summer night, who is going to want to eat wild boar? Especially in a white Port and raspberry sauce. Or a veal chop with cheese melted over the top?
Except for that boar, the roster of main courses is fairly predictable but on the whole well-executed. Lamb chops come out medium-rare as ordered, and the filet mignon, arguably the most boring-sounding item on the menu, is actually the best -- a fine piece of beef with good flavor, in a decent pink peppercorn sauce.
Desserts change often but are mostly standards such as panna cotta with berry sauce or a trio of chocolate mousses. A crema or pudding unmolded with pistachios on top is too stiff and floury. Go with the simple semifreddo, or "half-frozen," which is something like a frozen souffle made with almond-laced torrone. It's cold and not too sweet, refreshing after all this heavy food.
On our way out the first night, Cesaro tries to give me the ritual -- and patently insincere -- kiss kiss ciao ciao. I don't know the guy, and I'm not playing. He steps back and says, shrugging, "I am Italian." I'm reminded of the hilarious old "Saturday Night Live" skit in which Kirstie Alley fends off a posse of overzealous Italian waiters. A word of advice: Ado maybe should concentrate more on the kitchen and more intuitive service and leave the kissing to the cuddly couple at the corner table.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Ado 1/2 *
796 Main St. (at Abbot Kinney), Venice; (310) 399-9010; www.adovenice.com.
Appetizers, $9 to $16; pasta and risotto, $14 to $17; main courses, $28 to $36; dessert, $6 to $9. Corkage fee, $25.
Open for dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday and from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
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.