If you've traveled much in Italy, you probably have an idea of what an Italian steak meal might be like: a small antipasto or two, an unchallenging pasta and then a honking piece of meat, charred salty black in the fireplace but warm and bloody within, portioned out among everybody at the table. If there is a sauce, it is a few drops of harsh, green olive oil. If there is a side dish, it is a handful of potatoes or some beans. You will drink cheap, rough wine. You will still spend more than you expect, but you will be unreasonably happy.
Pistola, the new restaurant from Gusto's Vic Casanova, is another kind of Italian steakhouse, halfway between a pasta house and a luxury steakhouse like Boa or Mastro's.
The risotto, should you choose to order it, is paved with gold leaf and costs $28. The steak tartare, made from dry-aged beef, is essentially a vehicle for truffle oil. The chopped salad, a pretty good one made with radicchio, provolone, salami and a few other things, has been sculpted so thoroughly into a cylinder that not even a stray bit of shaved onion intrudes upon its symmetry. Ayn Rand would have liked it. It is a salad in bondage, molded to its creator's will.
You are not in Tuscany. You are not in Naples. You are neither at Mastro's nor Dan Tana's. You are in a land of big meat and handmade pasta, truffle butter and tomato paste-laced sauces like the ones your mother may have made, vintage soul music and Grey Goose and soda. Most of the wines on the mostly Italian list hover near the top end of the range — the specialty seems to be in blue-chip wines from underrated regions — although there are some perfectly delicious bottles, like Andrea Occhipinti's bright Sicilian Frappato, priced in the mid $50s.
Casanova is an old-school Italian American chef, brought up near Arthur Avenue in the Bronx — thus the chicken Scarpariello on the menu — and a veteran of kitchens run by chefs like Scott Conant and Daniel Boulud. He opened the well-regarded Culina in the Four Seasons Hotel Beverly Hills a few years ago before leaving to open Gusto. (My estimable colleague S. Irene Virbila said "that to anyone who grew up Italian … Gusto feels like home.")
His partner Seth Glassman, formerly of the nightlife-oriented Innovative Dining Group, seems always to be in the dining room, slicked-back hair and tailored suit, counseling his customers on the cocktails (the Rocket Man, made with puréed arugula, is surprisingly good) and confiding that Casanova's meatballs are the best he's ever had. Pistola is dark, masculine and unusually clubby for a space that used to house the sunny cooking of Suzanne Goin's AOC. Glassman and Casanova are clearly after both the high rollers and the Sunday gravy crowd.
So you order those meatballs in Sunday gravy, which is to say, long-simmered tomato sauce with that sharp, mother-in-law taste, and you get the fried calamari and you go for the truffle-butter-drenched seared scallops with their celery root purée.
If you're not much for extremely reduced tomato sauce and fresh pasta used where you'd normally see dried, Casanova's pasta aesthetic may not be your own, but there is a certain charisma to his spicy, tart, tomato-intensive versions of the Roman standard bucatini all'Amatriciana and the nightclub standby rigatoni alla vodka. (You probably want to avoid the ink-black agnolotti filled with mealy lobster and shrimp.) The southern Italian-style savory chocolate-flavored campanelle with braised duck isn't bad — there seems to be a vogue for cocoa-flavored pasta in town at the moment — and the orrecchiete with sausage and broccoli rabe is salty and delicious.
And then, inevitably, comes the steak, big hunks of meat, reasonably well-prepared and luxury-priced. If there are four of you splitting a thick, $125 Fiorentina, you will be happy enough with the porterhouse. The meat is neither as intensely mineral as what you'd find at Sostanza in Florence or Villa Roncalli in Foligno, nor as profoundly marbled as the best steaks at Mastro or Cut, but it is decently juicy, cooked to an accurate medium rare and well-portioned. Is meat-tartness more evident in the biceps-sized dry-aged tomahawk rib-eye? Maybe a little, although if you slather it with an ice cream scoop of truffle butter, a $3 supplement, you probably wouldn't notice if they slipped a pork chop onto your plate instead.
One part Sunday gravy, one part big honkin' steak.
8022 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 951-9800, pistola-la.com
Antipasti, $11-$21; pasta and risotto, $17-$28; steaks and chops, $49-$125; sides, $8; desserts, $9-$10.
Open 6 to 11 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 6 p.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, 6 to 10:30 p.m. Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.