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Review: Strong pastas and perfect ice cream at Antico — who could ask for more?

Ziti with tripe ragu
The ziti with tripe ragu at Antico, a new Italian restaurant in Larchmont by chef-owner Chad Colby.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

There’s no point burying the lede: Antico makes probably the best ice cream I’ve had anywhere in Los Angeles and possibly west of the Rockies. While this is no small feat, is a restaurant worth going to based on that and that alone? Again, I’m going to say probably yes.

Antico’s ice cream is impossibly smooth, with a texture somewhere between Häagen-Dazs and a McDonald’s soft serve cone. A strawberry version made with Harry’s Berries is light and bright like a gelato but with a long, fruity hangtime you would associate with higher fat content. The chocolate ice cream is somehow even more ethereal; it’s practically a sorbet, made with just milk solids and no cream whatsoever, but with a deep, dense chocolatey-ness that growls and purrs like a Ferrari F8.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, to have a Carpigiani, the Ferrari of ice cream machines, sitting in the back. But what’s the point in having a Ferrari if you can’t open ’er up? Driven by pastry chef/executive sous chef Brad Ray under the supervision of chef-owner Chad Colby, the Carpigiani is allowed to show what it can do on the dining autobahn — not just sit in traffic on the 405. Is a machine that retails for tens of thousands of dollars worth the price? I defy you to try the honeycomb ice cream, perfectly finished with a little sea salt and Sicilian extra virgin olive oil, and tell me it’s not.

Honeycomb ice cream
The honeycomb ice cream at Antico is finished with sea salt and Sicilian extra virgin olive oil.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Antico is Colby’s first big solo project since he left meaty Chi Spacca in 2015. I don’t love slapping labels onto places but if I had to, the one I’d affix here would say “pastoral Italian.” Technically in Larchmont, the restaurant is in a little bit of a no-man’s land between K-town and Hancock Park, around the corner from the giant KFC on Western Avenue, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it strip mall between a Korean beef soup place and the 1929 Dover Apartments. With it, Colby is opening the restaurant he’s always wanted — Italian-inspired, with more pastas and a focus on seasonal produce.

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Colby’s education in Italian food began in earnest at Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel’s Campanile in the early aughts, where he cooked in a back of house that resembled the ’97 Chicago Bulls: Brooks Headley (Superiority Burger), Matt Molina (Hippo), Bryant Ng (Cassia) and others. Colby eventually went to Mozza, then Chi Spacca, then had a false start, almost opening a restaurant with Curtis Stone, before Antico came to be.

The first Cheesecake Factory restaurant opened in Beverly Hills in 1978 and now has over 200 locations. With everything from Tex-Mex eggrolls to Thai lettuce wraps, it captures the essence of America — the good and the bad — in one over-the-top dining experience.

He remembers vividly one particularly sagacious bit of advice he got from Silverton: Never open a restaurant that’s worse than the one you’re already at.

That trap has been successfully avoided, although the restaurants are quite different. While I love the clubby feel of Chi Spacca (it was never supposed to actually be a restaurant, rather a wine store), I don’t need a 42-ounce dry-aged steak on the regular. Antico has less going on in the ambience department but makes up for it with a more well-rounded menu of Italian fare that is often creative and occasionally inspires.

Particularly the pastas. A pasta-obsessed Colby wasn’t allowed to serve it at Chi Spacca, lest it undercut Mozza next door. Now he can let his carb freak flag fly. The spaghettoni al limone is especially strong, a twist on the Southern Italian dish with a redolent fruitiness that seems to infuse every pasta strand. The addition of some very good anchovies rockets this dish to a higher gear, adding a belt of umami that acts like good fish sauce in a bowl of Vietnamese bún thịt nướng.

Spaghettoni al limone
Spaghettoni al limone with Cetara anchovy at Antico, a rustic Italian restaurant from chef Chad Colby.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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When I was a kid, I’d frequently boil whatever pasta was in the cupboard after school, melt a few pats of butter into it, drown it in Kraft Parmesan cheese, and then go watch a “Perfect Strangers” marathon or something. The maccheroni with butter and Vacche Rosse Parmesan at Antico takes me back to that time as well as any dish I’ve had: a rich, comforting, creamy mess of sense memory.

A ziti with tripe ragu doesn’t turn trippa alla romana on its head but pairs air-dried Gragnano pasta with perfectly textured strips of chewy tripe and slightly more of Colby’s bright, balanced tomato sauce than you need (but not more than you want). Use the excellent, airy focaccia — essentially an olive oil funnel cake — to scarpetta to your heart’s desire.

Ziti with tripe ragu from Antico
Fresh parmesan cheese is grated over Antico’s ziti with tripe ragu.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The first thing you’ll notice upon entering Antico’s dining room is the large open kitchen on the far wall, with a welcoming almond wood-fired hearth. It’s the centerpiece of the restaurant and touches nearly everything that comes over the pass, particularly the proteins. A couple of big, communal tables anchor the floor, and strings of chiles and garlic hang from the ceiling.

A piece of outside skirt steak, cut appealingly on a strong bias, is nicely kissed by wood smoke and cooked as well as you would expect from someone with a Ph.D. in meat like Colby. Unimpeachable lamb chops, Frenched and with the rib meat stuffed into an accompanying small coil of lightly garlicky sausage, sit in a pool of good olive oil, which seems to be Colby’s go-to condiment.

Are there a few things here and there I might change? Sure, but they’re picky. Taut-skinned roasted chicken is served with a big piece of focaccia in the center of the plate to soak up jus like a super crouton — great in theory, but it leaves the rest of the chicken fairly sauceless. A green salad with a few Sungold tomatoes and pickled onions doesn’t seem to fully take advantage of the bounty that our farmers markets have to offer.

Lamb with pistachio and mint
Lamb with pistachio and mint at Antico.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Kitchen notwithstanding, the buildout looks done with an eye toward haste (despite the fact that the restaurant’s opening was significantly delayed). The dining room could use some soundproofing — it’s loud in there. Service is careful and attentive, if not entirely in line with the idea of a casual, communal restaurant. I never particularly care about fine-dining touches like having my silverware and plates cleared after every course, but they seem slightly more out of place here.

But most of that is moot once that dessert arrives, enjoyed perhaps with a little glass of chinato made with herbs from Colby’s own garden. The eminently drinkable digestif tastes pleasantly bitter, verdant and like cloves and vanilla; it’s a bit of a fortified Coca-Cola, and it’s wonderful. Nearly as wonderful as the ice cream — and that’s a pretty high bar.

Antico
Location: 4653 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 510-3093, antico-la.com

Prices: Antipasti and smaller dishes $9-$16, pastas $18-$24, entrees $22-$48; desserts $9-$12.

Details: Credit cards accepted. Wine and beer. Valet parking. Wheelchair accessible.

Recommended dishes: Spaghettoni al limone, ziti with tripe ragu, any grilled meat, all the ice creams.
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