Restaurant review: Riva in Santa Monica

Restaurant Critic

In downtown Santa Monica, people walk. Stand in front of the new Riva on Wilshire between 3rd and 4th streets and it’s quite the spectacle as buff new mothers jog behind strollers, friends giggle over their haul from sales on the Third Street Promenade, and the down-and-out troll passersby for spare change. Everybody passing by, though, stops to peer in the windows of the lively new restaurant that’s sprouted where the Italian steakhouse Scarboni briefly languished.

Inside, the place is packed with a gregarious crowd. Every seat at the wine bar is taken, and the lounge area at the front window is populated with folks waiting for a table or stopping in for a bite and a glass of rosso from the well-priced list of wines by the glass. Riva looks like fun, and it is. Come early enough to browse at Hennessey + Ingalls or Barnes & Noble.

After a somewhat rocky start, Riva is coming on strong. The months-old sibling of Fraîche in Culver City, it shares the same parentage -- chef Jason Travi, his wife and pastry chef Miho Travi and manager-sommelier Thierry Perez. But whereas Fraîche is rustic Mediterranean, Riva has a slightly different accent, more specifically Italian, with a menu that plays off the cuisine of the Italian Riviera.

For Jason Travi, that means, first of all, a section of the menu devoted to crudo, or raw fish. And another that lists pizzas from the ungainly wood-burning oven mounted just inside the open kitchen. Part three consists of familiar, mostly Italian main courses.

No pasta? No pasta, oddly enough. And that’s one of the things Travi does best. (He perfected his skills under Gino Angelini at La Terza where he was chef de cuisine.)

It’s pizza, though, that is packing in the crowds. While Pizzeria Mozza still rules, Riva is closing in, and here at least you can get a reservation. The crust is still a work in progress (Mozza’s Nancy Silverton spent months developing her recipe and technique before her pizzeria opened its doors), but it’s so much better than it was the first week.

Travi just added a terrific molto maiale pie, which is very much in “molto Mario’s” over-the-top style with pork sausage, bacon, pancetta and little meatballs all sharing space with a slick of tomato sauce. Even this one, though, is very much Italian in style, i.e., light on the topping, the better to show off the crust, which is the real point of the pizza. Another good one is the patate semplice covered in sliced potato and a thin blanket of Fontina, and sprigs of rosemary.

There’s still some room for improvement. The Margherita seems a bit too shy on the bufala mozzarella. Nobody’s expecting the cheese to be inches thick, but please, just a little more. And funghi (mushrooms) with Taleggio and fresh oregano is made, oddly, with minced mushrooms instead of sliced, which is not an improvement. It seems the chef is trying a little too hard to come up with pizza variations no one else has. But when he gets it right, these are some of the best pies west of Highland Avenue.

I say he, because the last few times I’ve gone to Riva, Travi has been in-house -- and it makes all the difference. Travi has a reputation as one of the hardest-working chefs in the business. But, with Fraîche to run, he obviously can’t be at Riva every minute.

Casual by design

Travi is smart about how his restaurants should look and feel. Riva has a wonderful, airy look with high ceilings, white walls and concrete pillars. You’d never recognize the old Scarboni. It’s also larger than it looks because there’s an entire second dining room behind the bar. The design is simple and fresh with wobbly ribbons of white painted on the bar’s curved ceiling and small pots of herbs on each side of the door. From the outside, Riva looks inviting. It’s not the place to come, though, if you have a long conversation in mind: The noise level can be punishing.

Fortunately, the food is distraction enough. Start with either a couple of crudo dishes to share, or an appetizer salad. The creamy burrata with roasted sweet peppers is as good as anywhere. There’s a decent roasted beet salad, this one with aged goat cheese and pistachios, but my favorite is the luscious Hachiya persimmon paired with thin ribbons of the smoky raw-cured ham speck. The ham’s sweetness against the tart persimmon is perfect.

As for the crudi, razor-thin slices of raw fluke drizzled with Meyer lemon have a certain elegance. And I love the baby cuttlefish with wisps of celery, toasted walnuts and a swirl of Sicilian olive oil. But some don’t make the cut. Geoduck with basil seeds, watercress and mint, for example, is tasteless and rubbery. It’s better to order the big-eye tuna with a lovely little loose tomato sauce punctuated with capers.

Initially, portions of crudo were minuscule; now they seem more in line with the price, keeping in mind that high-quality seafood will never be anything but expensive.

The way I like to eat at Riva is to order a plate or two of crudo to share, maybe a salad, and a couple of pizzas. Basta. Main courses are fine, but nothing too exciting, with a couple of exceptions. The costata di bue for two is fabulous -- beautifully cooked prime rib, carved table-side (and yes, you do get the bone). It also comes with tiny Umbrian lentils, braised cavolo nero and bagna cauda (anchovy, garlic and olive oil) for a wonderful combination of flavors. And compared to other such cuts around town, it’s a bargain at $80 for two (which is actually enough for three).

Vines’ offerings

Of course, that’s a wonderful excuse to drink a big, bold Italian red from Perez’s intelligent and well-priced all-Italian list with a full page of reds for under $50, and another for those under $75. For big spenders, there’s a fine riserva list. He’s got some interesting whites too for the crudo, such as a lovely floral Pigato from Liguria or a minerally Fiano di Avellino from Campania.

Crispy salmon-trout is just what it should be, nice with braised artichokes and a brown butter with preserved lemons. And the lamb spezzatino, basically a stew, is a comforting dish served with creamy semolina. Shellfish “Fra Diavolo,” a medley of lobster and shellfish with Sardinian couscous and a blast of hot pepper, seems overpriced at $37.

Desserts suit the casual pleasures of Riva: lovely ricotta fritters served warm with lemon-scented Catalan cream foam, an excellent version of tiramisu, and the classic torta della nonna, “grandma’s cake,” garnished with poached quince and a scoop of fior di latte (flower of milk) gelato. If pear tartine is on the menu, get it. Pears, almond cream, butterscotch ice cream. That says it all.

Recently, it’s been a long, dry spell for Santa Monica restaurants. For a town of its size, it should have more good places to eat than it does. But this seems to be one. The only question is whether Travi can keep it up. He can’t stay in this kitchen forever: He has Fraîche to run. Does Travi have two restaurants in him? Time will tell.

Riva RATING: **LOCATION 312 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 451-7482; www.rivarestaurantla.comAMBIENCE Lively restaurant and bar from Fraîche’s Jason Travi and company with food inspired by coasts of Italy. That means crudo, pizza and more.PRICE Crudo, $9 to $15; appetizers, $3 to $16; pizza, $11 to $17; main courses, $25 to $40; desserts, $8 to $10. Less expensive lunch menu.BEST DISHES Raw cuttlefish with walnuts and celery, raw fluke with Meyer lemon, persimmon with speck, molto maiale pizza, lamb spezzatino, prime rib for two, ricotta fritters, pear tartine.WINE LIST Well-chosen and moderately priced; great list of wines by the glass. Corkage, $25.DETAILS Open from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. daily. Full bar. Valet parking, $7.50.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 photos of Riva and its most popular dishes.