Italian Food & Art at Luigi al Teatro

The Chateau Paintings displayed at Michelin-starred chef Luigi Fineo’s restaurant Luigi al Teatro, adds to the theatrics of the Santa Monica California seafood with a Southern Italian flair menu.

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Michelin-starred chef Luigi Fineo

Luigi al Teatro has an artistic past as once the historic Powerhouse Theatre. Inside the dining room on the walls are painted faces of actors looking towards the kitchen where Executive Chef Luigi Fineo prepares his Italian specialities. Outside on the al fresco dining patio, art is the focal point among greenery and a wall of herbs for the chef to cultivate and use for sauces, garnish and decoration.

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Artist Lisa Gizara

A few weeks ago, I met resident artist Lisa Gizara during her art opening reception at Teatro di Luigi in Santa Monica. While sipping Prosecco, Gizara shared with me her “once in a lifetime” experience in France at The Chateau Orquevaux. “The chateau was about 3.5 hours East of Paris, between Champagne and Dijon,” said Gizara. “I would wake up in the morning, look out my window and feel so lucky.”

IMG_4443Her two week residency brought her close to other artists from around the world. The 2018 Artist-in-Residence program received applicants from artists in over 25 countries including Canada, South Africa, and Egypt. There is a two-week and four-week residency program. Gizara stayed for two week in a studio room on the top floor. “We would eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together, paint and share wine together. It was magical,” said Gizara.

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Since 1990 she has only painted black and white paintings, however after living at the chateau for weeks, she was moved to incorporate colors on her canvas. “For the first time since college, I totally immersed myself in art while at the chateau,” said Gizara.

Born in upstate New York, Gizara started painting at the age of 13. She fondly remembers painting New England landscapes and farmers in fields. While attending U Mass Dartmouth, she discovered that she wanted to be an artist full-time and moved to Santa Monica in 1986. “I started painting monochromatic images in black and white with a little bit of gray and olive green,” she said.

Her work has developed a Hollywood following, with her limited edition portfolio of both photograph & paintings included in the 2014 Oscar Nominee Gift Bags. Her work has appeared on Entertainment Tonite, The Insider, Access Hollywood and the The Ellen Show.

Actress Jennifer Lawrence and actor Bruce Dern display Gizara’s artwork in their private collections, and Disney executive Sean Cocchia has some of Gizara’s Los Angeles photographs.

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Come see Gizara’s artwork until December 3, 2018 during brunch or dinner at Luigi al Teatro.

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Brunch dishes include a variety of toasts topped with smoked salmon, crème fraîche and capers. I enjoyed the luscious avocado, burrata and pickled onions, and mint. Another offered a soft poached egg on top of layers of prosciutto, arugula and a cherry tomato. For something sweet the ricotta with fig jam and fried rosemary is a winner.

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Salads include a brightly colored heirloom tomato with burrata, and baby gem lettuce drizzled with an orange bourbon vinaigrette. Fineo also makes a spinach quiche, baked eggs and a sea urchin omelet. Brunch is available on Saturday starting at 11 a.m. and Sunday at 10 a.m. Dinner service begins at 5 p.m.

3116 Second St., Santa Monica, (310)328-0000 – Click here to see the dinner menu http://www.luigialteatro.com. 

A Taste of the Amalfi Coast at Casa del Mar

Cabanas are typically reserved for the outdoors at resorts, but at Santa Monica’s iconic Hotel Casa del Mar, the restaurant Catch brings the luxurious lounge areas inside, creating the ideal space for intimate cocktail parties, romantic date nights and happy hour relaxation. And to further add to the elegance, for a limited time, Catch’s Terrazza Lounge is offering delicious and authentic Italian cuisine alongside its spectacular views of the ocean.

IMG_7565Until Feb. 3, the Hotel Casa del Mar is hosting a pop-up dinner with executive chef Stefano Mazzone of Italy’s Grand Hotel Quisisana. Charlie Lopez-Quintana, general manager of Casa del Mar, developed the concept with Mazzone and GianLuca Salvia, director of sales and marketing for Grand Hotel Quisisana, in the hopes of bringing Amalfi coastal cuisine to Southern California.

Escape to Downtown LA

When I was invited to participate in one of the Escape Rooms in downtown Los Angeles, you know those intriguing spaces where you’re given clues and a time limit to escape – I wasn’t sure what to expect.

My daughter and I joined six others in the Pyramid room, a secret tomb deep inside a Mayan setting. The physical adventure began as we tried to solve a series of puzzles to reach and uncover the secret Mask of the Jade Warrior to escape. Using clues and sometimes questions from our moderator to enter various themed rooms, our one hour time limit ran out before we could find the mask and escape. Learning only 41% of the participants escape from this room, we didn’t feel completely defeated.

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To pick up spirits, we met others who were in different rooms at Terroni for an Italian dinner. It’s only one block from Escape Room LA. Owners and friends Cosimo Mammoliti and Paolo Scoppio opened their first Terroni in Queen, Toronto in 1992. With its success, they opened two other Canadian Terroni restaurants. Then in 2007, they opened their first Los Angeles location on Beverly Blvd., before renovating this downtown 6,000 sq. ft. space in 2013.

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Walking into the restaurant, we admired the beautiful soaring coffered ceiling (They don’t build banks like this anymore), and elegant floor to ceiling arch windows along the sidewalk. There is also an impressive glassed-in wine room. The large bar offers an array of specialty spirit bottles to make creative cocktails, while in the main dining room there are cozy booths and a viewing window with hanging meat and sausage, bottles of cooking wine and cheese.

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Looking at the menu we noticed an array of creative Southern Italian dishes with starters including bread with handmade taralli and olives. Taralli is an Italian snack similar in texture to a cracker or breadstick. Other crunchy apristomaco (translated in English to stomach opener) includes deep fried zucchini flowers with ricotta & Parmigiano; deep fried arancini with meat and cheese, and fried calamari served with lemon.

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The chefs grill calamari and serve it on greens with sliced onions, a sprinkling of capers and tomatoes. Looking over the salad section, I ordered the Nizzarda and enjoyed the mixture of arugula, slices of Italian tuna, cubes of potatoes, sliced eggs, chopped red onions, tomatoes, black olives, green beans, and two anchovies. White wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil brought out the “Nicoise” flavors.

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The chefs come in early and work late to make all the handmade pastas offered on the menu. There are a couple of homemade spaghetti dishes, a bucatini, a potato gnocchi and a rigatoni decorated with dandelions and slices of homemade spicy Italian sausage. The tagliolini is topped with fresh clams, fresh mussels, calamari, scallops and tiger shrimp in a light tomato sauce. My favorite pasta at our table that we all shared, was a slowly cooked lamb rage on top of capunti pasta. This freshly made pasta resembles a short, oval and open peapod.

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With over 30 pizza varieties on the menu, we ordered two of the hand stretched, thin and crispy pies. My daughter enjoyed the traditional Margherita with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. Another person at our table ordered the C’t Mang white pizza with ripe slices of pear, chopped nuts and a sprinkling of gorgonzola and mozzarella. There were long strips of smoked prosciutto and a drizzle of honey on top to balance the sweet and savory flavors.

Before leaving we noticed next door to Terroni is Dopolavoro (means after work in Italian), a casual Italian marketplace inside the bank building. The Terroni owners opened it for locals to swing by at the end of the day, to pick up some Italian delicacies and pre-made meals. The store offers olive oil, cheese, wine, bread, milk, eggs and handmade pasta to prepare at home.

IMG_5987Looking for a fun outing this weekend? Escape to downtown Los Angeles for a night of solving clues before or after a meal at Terroni.

Escape Room LA has space available through March, 2018. Click on this link to go online to select a date and time Escape Room LA. Prices are Tuesday – Thursday: $32 per person  /  Friday – Sunday: $37 per person. Book 2 or more games for the same day – get 10% off!*  /  Book all 4 games for the same day – get 15% off!* *Must book full rooms to receive discounted prices. Call (213)689-3229 to receive these discounted rates for booking multiple games. Escape Room LA is located at 120 E. 8th Street (between Main and Los Angeles Streets).

Terroni is at 802 S. Spring St. (213)221-7234 and Dopolavoro 808 S. Spring St. (213)954-0300. Terroni in the Fairfax area 7605 Beverly Blvd. (323)954-0300.

This article was featured in the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News on Jan. 25, 2018.

North Italia Cuisine For All

After finding success in Santa Monica with True Food Kitchen and Flower Child, Sam Fox opened North Italia just down the street in early 2017. The restaurant, as its name suggests, offers fresh Italian fare in the former Buca di Beppo space.

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Fox and his team renovated the space by opening up the dining room and painting the walls a clean white. There is a lively bar in the front, and beautiful viewing kitchen in the back. The light wood ceiling offers plenty of recessed lighting, and a few big modern, glass globe lights hang down. Much like an Italian taverna, groups of people chat and share plates of pasta, pizza and salads, while drinking glasses of wine.

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The menu is separated into sections – starters, pizza, pastas and main courses. The wine list includes bubbly, a sangria, and variety of white, red and rosé wines, served by the glass, “Terza” (larger pour than a traditional glass) or by the bottle.

Our server Nathan said the chefs at North Italia make from scratch daily the pizza dough, as well as a variety of salads, pastas and main courses using ingredients from gardens, farms and the sea.

From the starter section, we ordered two vegetarian choices. The first was grilled cauliflower that arrived in a black skillet. Accompanying the cauliflower florets were baby asparagus spheres in a pancetta cream, with toasted breadcrumbs and a fried egg on top.

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The second dish consisted of arancini spheres made with crispy mushroom risotto, stuffed with scamorza (a semi-soft white cow’s milk cheese), and finally bathed in a delicious red sauce.

IMG_1618The handmade tortelloni at Noth Italia is plumper and larger than the more familiar tortellini. (photo by Jill Weinlein)

Peeking into the large exhibition kitchen, I saw a chef standing at a pasta machine cutting light yellow pasta ribbons. He was making a tortelloni, a larger variation of tortellini. While tortelloni is usually stuffed with ricotta cheese, at North Italia it is stuffed with fresh Italian burrata cheese made from mozzarella and cream.

IMG_1640Looking into the kitchen again, I noticed the chef was now making fresh radiatori pasta. It’s a small, squat pasta that resembles a radiator. At North Italia they top it with a thick parmesan cream sauce and beef short rib braised in red wine. A little bit of horseradish, wilted arugula and a sprinkling of herbed breadcrumbs round out the flavors of this dish.

We also ordered chicken pesto pasta, which arrived with a vibrant, green fragrance due to the fresh basil. It’s enhanced with toasted pine nuts, a little garlic and crispy capers on gigli pasta, shaped like a flower with ruffled edges.

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The six pizza choices can be made with traditional pizza dough or with a gluten-free crust. The pies arrive puffy and blistered around the edges. Toppings include Mission figs, Cipollini onions, grilled asparagus, roasted potatoes and Italian sausage. Meat lovers will like “The Pig” pizza topped with spicy pepperoni and soppressata, an Italian dry salami. The Mission figs, goat cheese and arugula give the prosciutto pizza a sweet, salty and peppery earthiness.

The back of the restaurant is a great spot for a semi-private party. In fact, the staff was setting up for a party of 20 while we were there, and soon a group of six adults and 14 children filled the space. The chefs put on a show for the kids, tossing pizza dough into the air. The restaurant is kid-friendly, offering a menu of pasta, pizza, chicken, cheeseburger and grilled cheese sandwiches. Desserts for kids include a scoop of gelato and sugared donuts with a chocolate dipping sauce.

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North Italia, 1442 Second Street, Santa Monica, (310)382-2460 and at The Point in El Segundo 840 South Sepulveda, Suite 110, (310)469-7695. There is also a location in Irvine. $$.

This article is also featured in the October 5, 2017 issue of the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News.

Since its opening in 1989, Toscana has established itself as a sophisticated Hollywood celebrity dining spot in Brentwood. However, its more recent, 7-year-old addition, Bar Toscana has made a name for itself as well. I recently met some friends at the bar to try their new stuzzichini, or finger foods, menu.
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Executive chef Hugo Vasquez, a member of the founding team, believes the best food is the simplest dish. “You don’t need many ingredients as long as you have the freshest,” Vasquez said.

The warm and inviting space of Bar Toscano features brick-red leather chairs intermingled with taupe leather banquettes. Kathie Gordon and local designer Kathleen Hunt recently added a contemporary twist to the space with aged oak tables finished with a distinctive copper trim.

As I walked inside, I noticed how full the bar was with guests chatting and enjoying an array of authentic Italian cocktails and shared plates inspired by the luxurious Hotel Cipriani in Venice, Italy.

Towards the back of the lounge is an innovative and eye catching digital projection of floral art, created by acclaimed artist Jennifer Steinkamp. There are also four original collage pieces by Los Angeles-based artist Melissa Wenke, providing bursts of vibrant reds, orange, greens and blues to the space.

Some of my friends ordered an Aperol Spritz, while others sipped glasses of Negroni, as they enjoyed an artfully plated Tagliere di Salami served with homemade bread sticks and giardiniera (an Italian relish) with homemade strawberry, red onion jam and assorted breads. Burrata layered on bread with speck and green heirloom tomato jam was another stuzzichini.

A bright yellow dish, Insalatina di Barbabietole combined layers of yellow beets, a sprinkling of goat cheese, a few pickled plums and chopped hazelnuts.

IMG_0317However, my favorite was the Involtini di Melanzane served in a black cast iron dish. The beautifully rolled eggplant was filled with ricotta cheese and baby spinach and was surrounded by a light tomato sauce and adorned with basil leaves.

Another winning dish among the foodies at my table was the Lasagnetta di Carne made with homemade spinach lasagna, a thick beef ragu and besciamella (an Italian béchamel sauce) with shaved Parmigiano.IMG_0312

We ordered a few pizzas and savory T-bone beef sliders with truffle cheese and caramelized shallots. The flavor profile of the small sandwiches immediately produced smiles all around the table.

The chefs at Toscana make a variety of interesting wood-fired pizza, including a classic Margherita with melted Bufala Tartufo, and a Tonno e Cipolla with tomato, mozzarella, Italian tuna, red onion and capers. I really enjoyed the pizza with gorgonzola, prosciutto and sweet figs. Visit an old favorite with a new finger food menu with a group of friends for an entertaining evening.

Bar Toscana is open daily from 5:30 p.m. to closing. $$ 11633 San Vicente Blvd. (310)826-0028.

This review was published in the Sept. 13 issue of the Beverly Press – Bar Toscana

Celebrity Chef Scott Conant & Freddy Vargas – The Ponte

When Terrine closed last year, Stephane Bombet of Bombet Hospitality Group talked to Scott Conant about helping him change his classic French-inspired restaurant into a contemporary Italian one. Bombet knew Conant from Scarpetta at the Montage Beverly Hills. This celebrity chef attracted foodies from all over to order his iconic $24 spaghetti with tomato and basil.
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Conant and Bombet named the new restaurant The Ponte, inspired by the tight-knit Italian community, nicknamed “Pontes,” who live in the neighborhood where Conant was born and raised in Waterbury, Connecticut.

Conant now has multiple restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, Miami, Phoenix and Los Angeles. He and Bombet lured Freddy Vargas from Georgie Restaurant in Beverly Hills to be the executive chef. Conant and Vargas met in New York and have worked together since 2008, first at Scarpetta in New York, then Beverly Hills and at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach.

IMG_5352When I received an invite to experience brunch at The Ponte last weekend, I immediately accepted. Parking in the back valet lot, my husband and I walked through the patio filled with green and yellow umbrellas to the reception stand and were greeted by Yuri Maldonado, the lovely and charming assistant manager.

Giving us a choice of sitting outside under the 50-plus-year-old tree draped with twinkle lights or inside near the glass and metal doors, we selected sitting inside at a curved booth with olive brushed-velvet upholstery. Rome-born, Parisian designer Marc Ange of Bloom Room Studio provides a retro spirit of Italy with warm woods, soft lighting with gold sea urchin spike chandeliers, gold and green velvet accents and a granite bar near the entrance. It’s slightly formal inside with white linen tablecloths. The ceiling and walls color are painted black, offering a warm and cozy feel. Also new are the 70s style wood and lattice privacy half walls, breaking the dining room into two sections.

We sipped housemade bitter lemon tonics to get started, as Yuri excitedly told us that when the restaurant first opened Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr sat in the same corner table with Joe Walsh from the Eagles and Vince Gill.

IMG_5360On the menu, pastas include braised duck agnolotti, ricotta gnudi with morels and Conant’s iconic pasta al pomodoro. It’s only $22 here.

Listening to an eclectic array of music that ranges from Dean Martin to Tom Petty, I looked at the toasts on the menu. They have the requisite avocado, and a ricotta toast, but the most interesting is a roasted trout mixed with creme fraiche layered on a thick, grilled crostini with tiny spheres of pickled cucumber and radish with bright red edges, chopped dill and dotted with capers. It’s an elegant alternative to an open faced tuna sandwich.

IMG_5364For something sweet we selected the French toast, and were pleasantly surprised. It’s made with thick slices of challah from Schwartz Bakery, the oldest kosher bakery in Los Angeles. What also makes this different from others is its citrus curd glaze, sprinkling of chopped hazelnuts and dollop of fresh whipped cream.

For an egg dish, I chose the baked egg on a layer of polenta with a tangy puttanesca sauce. It’s served in a shirred egg casserole dish. The best way to eat this is to spoon the egg with polenta and sauce onto one of the two pieces of grilled ciabatta bread that accompany the dish. This allows the ethereal sauce to seep into the air pockets and crevices of the bread.

IMG_5362Ryan Wainwright from Terrine is still the director of bar programs, and the all-Italian wine list is curated by sommelier Rosemary Walker. She does a good job pairing wines with dishes.

Sadly my chef crush Conant was not in Los Angeles the day I dined, however chef Freddy Vargas approached our table as we finished. He told me he was inspired to be a chef because of Emeril Lagasse.

I was very impressed with the flavors and creativity of the dishes presented at The Ponte. I’ll be back for dinner, hopefully on a night when Conant is in the kitchen so I can swoon all over again. $$ Dinner hours are 6 to 10p.m., Sunday through Thursday. The restaurant stays open until 11:30 p.m., on Friday and Saturday. Weekend brunch begins at 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday.

8265 Beverly Blvd. (323)746-5130.

This review was featured in the Beverly Press – http://beverlypress.com/2017/07/contemporary-italian-at-the-ponte/

DRAGO Ristorante at The Petersen Automotive Museum

 

Recently we visited the Petersen Automotive Museum to admire the special Hollywood car exhibit, featuring the iconic 1982 red Ferrari 308 GYSi driven by Tom Selleck in the hit television show Magnum, P.I., They also have the 1989 Batmobile in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), and the 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible featured in the movie Thelma and Louise. Click here to read about these celebrity cars

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Walking into the entrance of the museum, I noticed it got even better than my last visit, now that Drago Ristorante opened on the concourse level. It’s a grand collaboration with all four Drago brothers – Celestino, Calogero, Giacomino and Tanino. They are known for their fine dining Italian restaurants, bakery and catering throughout Los Angeles.

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Drago Ristorante is a colorful fusion of the museum’s art theme and the chefs well thought out dishes. Designer Stanley Felderman and co-designer Nancy Keatinge from Felderman Keatinge + Associates, compliment the lines of the Petersen Automotive Museum with colors of red, light blue, black and mauve in the restaurant. It’s an exciting melding of contemporary elements that include 65 indoor seats with a eye-catching infinity light fixtures in the center of the dining room.

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Officially open in December 2016, we were welcomed by the Francisco Ojeda, the Executive Vice President & Executive General Manager at Drago Culinary Productions/ Celestino Drago Enterprises. This handsome blue-eye man has worked with the Drago company for seven years. He told us that the restaurant’s patio along Fairfax Ave. will soon have 100 seats for al fresco dining in the Spring. We also learned we that tables and chairs will be placed out on the concourse, just outside of the restaurant. Guests can sit near an exotic 1953 Cadillac Series 62 Coupe that was given to actress Rita Hayworth by Prince Ali Khan.

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During lunch service, museum visitors and nearby office workers enjoy a casual dining experience with a variety of salads that include a burrata salad; calamari salad and a vegetarian option.They also make a trattoria burger topped with caramelized onions, portobello mushrooms and fontina cheese that comes with truffle fries. Heartier fare offered includes a pan-roasted Atlantic salmon and a pan roasted chicken breast with mustard seeds and sautéed green beans and shallots.

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In the evening, dinner service is slightly more formal and elegant. Our professional server Gabriel from the Amalfi Coast, enthusiastically suggested a few of his favorite dishes and recommended two glasses of white wine to pair with our starters. Gabriel brought a glass of a fresh and fruity Bibi Graetz “Casamatta” from Toscana. The wine offered a citrus lemon and lime character that was crisp and made with a blend of 90% Vermentino and 10% Moscato Bianco.

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I enjoyed sipping this wine with the pan roasted octopus served with a chick pea tart. The creative tart was similar in consistency to a flan. The octopus plate was beautifully decorated with a variety pickled vegetables and polka dots of olive oil.

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Gabriel recommended a glass of earthy Rocco del Gelso Chardonnay “Sietvignis” from Fruli, Italy to enjoy with one of the wood fired pizzas. These pies are really popular with children visiting the museum. Families enjoy sitting on high stools at the pizza kitchen viewing counter to watch the pizza makers flip dough in the air, sauce the top, and add ingredients to make four different varieties. We ordered a roasted vegetable pizza that arrived with a thin crust, fresh tomato sauce, mushrooms, onions, eggplant and sprinkling of herbs. Other pizzas on the menu are a shaved Pecorino cheese with ground black pepper and a little frisee. Elevated pizzas include a smoked salmon with arugula, pickled onions, dill, capers and salmon caviar. They also make an Italian favorite Parma pizza with prosciutto, mozzarella Bocconcini pearls, frisee and basil leaves.

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Still hungry, we ordered one pasta from a multitude of pasta offerings and one risotto dish. The pasta arrived in a bowl with wide cut housemade ribbons of fettuccine topped with sliced roasted pheasant and morels. It was brightened even more with a mushroom sauce.

The slightly sweet butternut risotto had a tempura butternut squash flower on top. There were a sprinkling of slightly roasted hazelnuts to give this smooth dish a touch of crunch.
My favorite dish was the braised short ribs on a layer of silky smooth polenta and flavorful cipollini onions. My husband enjoyed the Lomita di Vitello – large pan roasted veal chop served on a plate with creamy truffle potato puree and tangy roasted mushrooms.

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For dessert we ordered the Panettone-Nutella bread pudding and plate of tiramisu. With one bite, I posted a photo of the tiramisu on Instagram giving it the honor of best tiramisu in 2017. It’s made in a circular shape with exquisite mascarpone cheese, Lady Fingers illuminated with sugar crystals, and espresso coffee. The top layers include chocolate, a scoop of ice cream and sliced raspberries.

Before leaving, Ojeda visited our table and talked about the new Academy of Arts and Science set to open across the street. Guests can park in the museum’s multi-story parking lot, walk through the concourse, pass Drago Ristorante, and out to Wilshire Blvd. The new location will have a 1,200 seat theatre for the Academy Awards.

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Besides Drago Ristorante on the ground floor, they also have a spectacular Penthouse area on the fourth floor for parties, fundraisers and award show dinners that can seat up to 450 guests. The views of the city from this level are as dazzling as the food the kitchen prepares.

The lunch menu at Drago Ristorante is served from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner service runs 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Friday and until 11 p.m. on Saturdays. 6060 Wilshire Blvd. (323)800-2244.

Italian Street Food at Vinoteca

Adjacent to Culina in the Four Seasons Los Angeles is a newer Napolini culinary experience, Vinoteca Bar. I heard from others that it is so much more than just a bar and was eager to meet my friend Ali for lunch.

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After pulling up to the front of the Four Seasons, I walked to the right and noticed a very happy Marilyn Monroe statue standing on a metal grate with her white dress blowing up to expose her shapely thighs. At the base it’s titled “Forever Marilyn” by Seward Johnson. Seward was inspired to make this likeness of Monroe after seeing the iconic photograph shot by Bernard of Hollywood.

Walking towards Culina restaurant I noticed a row of privacy trees lining the hotel’s driveway. On the other side is Vinoteca.

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Since the weather was nice, we opted to sit on the covered outdoor patio, instead of inside the bar and cafe. It’s a more relaxed vibe than Culina restaurant, yet with the same exceptional service. Vinoteca opens at 6:30 a.m., as an espresso cafe with baristas making warm Caffè Umbria coffee drinks and eight hour drip cold brews made from an elegant, multi-tiered Yama maker.

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Walking along the bar to the patio, I noticed rows of convenient electrical plug outlets for people to plug in their laptop and smart phone to work while sipping a cafe latte and biting into one of pastry chef Federico Fernandez ethereal pastries. Some of his specialities include bacon and cheddar scones, plain and almond croissants, muffins and a powdered sugar pastry called a sfogliatello. To me it looked a little bit like a lobster tail with many ridges. Next to it was another pastry that caught my eye named cannoncini. This flakey treat looked like a croissant and cannoli with powdered sugar dazzling the top. “It’s also known as an Italian horn, filled with hazelnut cream” said the barista. I ordered one for the car ride home.

While sitting at a table, our server discussed the menu and informed us that the produce and fish are local, however the rice, wheat flour for the pizza, burrata, Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamic vinegar and Buffalo mozzarella are delivered from Italy twice a week to provide authentic flavor profiles. “The same products made here in the U.S. don’t taste the same,” she said.

Looking over the menu, it’s separated into sections. Our server recommended we order three to four plates per person to share. There are frutti di mare with fresh clams by the half dozen, California scallops, and two different types of oysters.

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Next are crudos made with yellowtail, salmon, tuna or scallops. My friend suggested we order one item from each section to share. We started with the yellowtail tartare from the crudo section. It arrived with a smear of soft, white mozzarella cheese decorating one side of the bowl. In the center was cut raw fish with compressed cherry bottarga (an Italian delicacy of salted, cured fish roe) and tiny chocolate mint leaves. It offered an fresh briny essence.

Under the Santa Monica Farmers Market section we ordered the ancient farro grain bowl filled with a sprinkling of mustard greens, chopped dried apricots, peaches and persimmons with strips of semisoft Taleggio Italian cheese. The cheese was mild in flavor, offering a slightly fruity tang. During the winter, this section will include small plates featuring brussels sprouts, butternut squash, heirloom carrots and fingerling potatoes.

img_6748Next we ordered Vinoteca’s specialty montanaras. They are small flash fried pizzas that are topped before being baked. “No one else makes these on the West Coast like we do,” our server told us. We ordered three of these Italian street food. The lobster montanara arrived first and looked similar to a lobster roll. It was filled with large chunks of lobster, tomato, onion, and celery. There was no mayonnaise, just a dash of Italian olive oil.

I found the eggplant montanara equally delicious. Shaped in a square it was topped with baked cherry tomatoes and melted smoked Provola cheese and garnished with whole basil leaves. The classic montanara was topped with 36 month old Parmigiano Reggiano.

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My favorite dish of the day arrived in a bowl and looked like a whole avocado surrounded with cream and microgreens. As we cut into the “avocado” we discovered it was like a geode when cut surprising us with an array of colors. The outside was made with crispy black breadcrumbs covering yellow rice. In the middle was a filling of salmon, chopped onions and English peas. What looked like cream, was a frothy Meyer lemon creme fraiche with basil sprinkled around the bowl. WOW! It’s similar to an Italian arancini (rice ball), yet enhanced with a housemade squid ink breadcrumb crust. I inquired with our server how this is made and learned that it takes the chefs one week to make the bread crumbs. They make the dough for the bread and proof it for 24 hours before baking. Then they let it dry out for a few days, slice it, crumble it, and add black squid ink. Saffron is added to the organic Italian grain rice before it’s rolled into the breadcrumbs and shaped into a true Italian triangle to resemble an avocado.

For those who would like a little wine with their L’Arancino, the bar serves three and six ounce pours, as well as a variety of bottles of Italian wines made in Italy and California. They even have a tasting flight of four wines with three ounce pours. One could pair a glass with each dish. The one page wine list offers Italian Spumante and white Italian wines. Some are created Italian-style in Sonoma, Napa Valley, Oak Knoll, Santa Ynez and Carneros. They offer the same with red wine. There are Italian reds made in Campania and Sicily and other reds inspired by Italy that are crafted in the California wine towns of Paso Robles, Lodi and Mendocino.

For those who don’t like wine, Vinoteca offers artisanal Italian beer, aperitivo cocktails and an array of digestivi e grappe.

img_6765For dessert the chefs make a sweet Montanara pizza shaped as a lobster roll. It’s filled with sweet sheep ricotta, bright red seasonal berry compote, and micro-basil. They also make a true Sicilian style cannoli with the same sweet sheep ricotta, a little chocolate, orange and chopped pistachios.

As we were leaving we learned that Vinoteca is offering an oyster and wine pairing special for $20 during their Wine Wednesdays. Guests may order a half-dozen Beausolei and/or Kusshi oysters and receive a glass of Laura Aschero Vermentino from Liguria, Italy every Wine Wednesday until Jan. 25 from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Complimentary parking is available for those dropping in to pick up pastries and coffee.  The espresso bar opens daily starting at 6:30 a.m. Vinoteca Wine Bar opens Monday-Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Thursday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday from 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. $$ 300 S. Doheny Drive (310)273-2222.

This article was featured in the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News on January 19, 2017 – http://beverlypress.com/2017/01/vinoteca-espresso-and-wine-bar-outstanding-italian-street-food-at-the-four-seasons-los-angeles-at-beverly-hills/.

 

Fun, Family-style Dining at Buca di Beppo

Photo by Jill Weinlein
Photo by Jill Weinlein

In the Cardinal room at the new Buca di Beppo at the Original Farmers Market, you can dine at the Pope’s table where a plexiglass box holds a bust of the pontiff. It’s fun to spin the lazy Susan resting in the middle of the table, and the Pope looks you directly eye if the round-about stops in front of you.

The walls are filled with decorations and whimsical photos of famous and happy Italians.

This is the 21st Buca di Beppo location in California.

Looking over the menu, most of the items are served family style with two portion sizes – Buca small that serves two to three people and Buca large that serves up to five guests. Since there were just three of us, we started with the small vegetarian pizza on thin pizza dough with crisp edges. Not only did it have broccoli, tomatoes, onions and peppers, but it had breaded eggplant pieces, too. Our server brought two large Italian tomato cans to our table to elevate the pizza to eye level.

Photo by Jill Weinlein
Photo by Jill Weinlein

Salads are always good with pizza, so we ordered the classic apple Gorgonzola salad with slices of Granny Smith apples, crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, dried cranberries and spiced walnuts. They also make a chopped antipasto in a rainbow of colors served in a large bowl with mixed lettuce, sliced pepperoni, chopped red onion, diced provolone cheese, cubed cucumbers, crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, sliced pepperoncini, oregano, diced Roma tomatoes and kalamata olives with a light Italian dressing.

Guests can pair their dishes with a variety of Italian wines. Many can be ordered by the glass, or in a little larger 9 oz. pour that comes in a small glass carafe. There is also a bottle of traditional Chianti on every table. Chianti is made in the Tuscany region and is an Italian favorite that is sometimes wrapped in a wicker basket. It goes well with the spaghetti and famous Buca meatballs that are large, dense and meaty. Our server Justin aimed to please. When we thought the spaghetti was a little dry, he happily brought out more sauce. The servers are extremely friendly and seem to be enjoying their job at this location.

If you order the linguine frutti del mar, a glass of crisp pinot grigio is a light summer wine to pair with the dish.

IMG_1369
Photo by Jill Weinlein

The rosso is an ideal red wine to pair with the chicken saltimbocca topped with prosciutto and sage. There is a sprinkling of artichoke hearts, lemon slices, capers and a glistening lemon butter sauce bringing this chicken dish to a new level.

Guests receive warm Italian bread with oil and balsamic vinegar. They also make a cheese garlic bread that is sinfully good. Both are great for dipping in the Italian sauces on each entrée, especially the layered eggplant Parmigiana, topped with Buca’s homemade marinara sauce, chopped Roma tomatoes, chopped basil and mozzarella.

My favorite dishes are the chicken or veal Marsala cooked until tender, with just a hint of sweetness from the Marsala wine and covered with fresh mushrooms. I also enjoy the broccoli with a pinch of garlic, red pepper flakes and Parmesan cheese.

For little ones with little appetites, Buca offers a kid’s menu that includes six different items and a drink.

I dare you and your party to eat an entire “colossal brownie sundae.” It’s sure to capture attention in the dining room and worthy of accolades to those who finish the enormous dessert. A martini glass is filled with freshly baked Ghirardelli chocolate brownies loaded with Ghirardelli chocolate chips. The brownies are layered with six scoops of vanilla and chocolate ice cream. Caramel and chocolate sauces top the ice cream before a mound of whipped cream is swirled making the dessert even taller. Of course it is finished with a cherry or two and a few sprinkles to make it festive.

Buca di Beppo is a birthday celebration destination. They have a special sign stating “Happy Birthday to you” that will be placed on your table and the staff sings a very festive Buca di Beppo birthday song. You will hear the rendition sung at various tables throughout your dining experience.

Tell them it’s your birthday when you make a reservation, and they will present you with a free birthday cake, as long as it is within 30 days of the actual day. This new dining destination is attracting locals as well as tourists visiting Los Angeles, thanks to its food, decor and prime location.

$$ – 6333 W. 3rd Street (323)370-6560. Located in the former Planet Dailies space, next to Mixology 101, the restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

This review was featured in the July 27 issue of the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News – http://beverlypress.com/2016/07/fun-family-style-dining-at-buca-di-beppo/

Two Thanksgiving Dining Options at The Montage in Beverly Hills

(Celebrity Chef Scott Conant with a very happy Jill Weinlein)
(Celebrity Chef Scott Conant with a very happy Jill Weinlein)

Celebrity Chef Scott Conant’s Scarpetta is serving an elegant Thanksgiving Day buffet that includes all the traditional trimmings inside The Montage Beverly Hills

(Start with Soup to Nuts at Scarpetta's Thanksgiving Buffet - photo by The Montage)
(Start with Soup to Nuts at Scarpetta’s Thanksgiving Buffet – photo by The Montage)

While overlooking the beautiful Beverly Canon gardens, families can begin with a complement of West Coast oysters, chilled shrimp, citrus cured salmon or Snow Crab legs, before moving on to enjoy slices of  herb roasted turkey, and his signature tomato and basil spaghetti. Other items include a leg of lamb, porchetta and Prime Rib. Corn Bread is infused with prosciutto & thyme.

Italian fare featured in the buffet range from ricotta Agnolotti, rigatoni and baked ricotta Cavatelli with Napa cabbage, sausage and butternut squash. There are cured meats, Fingerling potatoes with scallions & whole grain mustard, and autumn squash with agro dolce & spicy pumpkin seeds.

(Desserts at The Montage- Photo by The Montage)
(Desserts at The Montage- Photo by The Montage)

Finish with a multitude of satisfying desserts.

Bottomless Mimosas, Bloody Marys & Bellinis are available for an additional $22.

The Scarpetta buffet is served on Thursday, November 28 starting at noon to 5 p.m. The price is $108 per adult and $35 for children (5-12 years), exclusive of tax and gratuity. For reservations, (310)860-7970.

(Photo by The Montage)
(Photo by The Montage)

For lighter fare with glorious views of the Hollywood Hills and Beverly Hills, take your family to The Montage Rooftop for a myriad of gourmet á la carte options including pumpkin soup with toasted pepitas, pomegranate and whipped chèvre brioche toast. Other items include butternut squash flatbread with duck confit; a roasted turkey sandwich on toasted cranberry walnut bread, with warm brie, green apple, and caramelized shallots. Finish with a pumpkin gingerbread trifle or eggnog creme brûlée.

(Photo by The Montage)
(Photo by The Montage)

The Rooftop will be open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. For reservations, please call (310)860-7990. Prices range from $12 to $29 a dish.

Montage Beverly Hills is located at 225 N. Canon Drive. in Beverly Hills.

Vernetti – The Culinary Hub of Larchmont Village

IMG_3761As a young boy, Chef Steve Vernetti learned how to cook from watching his mother and reading Julia Child cookbooks. At the age of 8, he made a tray of éclairs while his parents went out for the afternoon. When they returned, the kitchen was a disaster with bowls and pots cluttering the countertops. However, when his parents tried Steve’s creative confection, they were so impressed and they encouraged him to continue cooking.

Before his father passed away, he told Steve that he was a talented chef and that he should open his own Italian restaurant and call it Vernetti.

In 2013, Steve and his wife Joanna bought the popular Larchmont Village restaurant Girasole and completely renovated the interior and kitchen. They worked closely with their architect and friend David Thompson, founder and principal at Assembledge+, to make the space their own.

Vernetti’s menu features both traditional and inventive dishes made with seasonal ingredients sourced from local IMG_3745purveyors and family farms. Upstairs, Vernetti displays his shiny Rosito Bisani TR95 Pasta Extruder machine next to drying racks strewn with freshly made spaghetti, tagliatelle, rigatoni, pappardelle and scalloped sheets of pasta for Vernetti’s homemade ravioli.

The front of the restaurant space features a retail section offering gourmet products that are California grown or sourced from Italian food importers. The storefront includes L’Ultimo Forno pastas and biscotti, Majani chocolates, Romanengo fruit fondants, Bianco Dinapoli tomatoes and Pasolivo olive oils.

“To own a restaurant right here in Larchmont Village, in the same neighborhood where we are raising our family, is pretty amazing,” Steve said. “Joanna worked closely with David on the restaurant’s design evoking a modernized European bistro interior.”

The tables, bar top and large mirror frames are made locally by Treeline Woodworks with white oak reclaimed wood. The restaurant’s large interior mirrors provide a space-expanding illusion for the 45-seat restaurant.

IMG_3753Steve kept many Girasole staff members to help him in the kitchen and in the dining room. Chef Maria works side by side with Steve, specializing in pastries. The affable servers Bob and John, a Dylan McDermott look-alike, deliver plates of Italian fare to guests in the dining room. “The hour before the doors open and the servers greet a diner is critical. How I set the tone in the kitchen is how the mood is set for the dining room,” Steve said.

The night I dined at Vernetti with a friend, the dining room was loudly abuzz as guests were excited to try various dishes on the menu. Steve and Joanna were consummate hosts, floating to each table introducing themselves and answering any questions.

We started with house made giardiniera, which is an Italian favorite of colorful julienned and pickled vegetables in vinegar and oil. Next we tried the crostini trio which included a crostini topped with roasted beet, house ricotta, chopped basil and pistachios; a deviled egg crostini topped with anchovy; and a Ceci bean crostini topped with a vibrant green mint blended with Pecorino cheese.

Vernetti’s salumi platter is comprised of flavorful prosciutto, porchetta, bresaola and a spicy calabrese salumi with a few pickled vegetables.

We also enjoyed the tasting plate of three of his pasta specialties. The first was a pappardelle with sautéed wild IMG_3747mushrooms, cream and parmigiano. The trio also included a rigatoni with a tender braised short rib ragú and a linguine with Manila clams, white wine, garlic and crushed red pepper.

An entrée of octopus is served with creamy white beans and a fennel and cabbage slaw.Chef Steve rests in wine corks before being grilled. The cork has natural enzymes that help tenderize the octopus.

We enjoyed the dry-aged prime sliced porterhouse steak served with peppery baby arugula and shaved parmigiano.
For dessert, we shared one of Chef Maria’s fresh strawberry panna cottas, a cannoli filled with house ricotta cream and candied citrus peel and a delectable pistachio tiramisu.

IMG_3762Vernetti has applied for a beer and wine license that will hopefully be granted soon.

The restaurant is open seven days a week for dinner from 5:30 to 11 p.m. Soon they will add lunch from 12 to 3 p.m., breakfast Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., and eventually weekend brunch will be served from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. 225 N. Larchmont Blvd. (323)798-5886.

This review was also published in the June 25 edition of the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea Newspapers.

Trattoria Neapolis One Year Anniversary Party

IMG_5005As the Fire Marshall with a clip board in hand and four other firemen maneuvered through the large crowd at Trattoria Neapolis, I knew Perry Vidalakis private one-year anniversary party was a huge success. He limited his party to 300 invited guests. There were exactly 300 of his most beloved customers, friends, and family members enjoying small bites of pizza, risotto and crispy lobster arancini while sipping wine, craft beer and creative cocktails.

The Fire Marshall stayed for a while and then left without closing the restaurant down. Whew! He didn’t have the heart after talking with Perry. You see, the celebration was for a worthy cause. A portion of the $60 anniversary dinner with drinks ticket went to Foothill Family Services. It’s a non-profit that helps over 21,000 vulnerable children in the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, Glendale, Burbank and Los Angeles County areas.

Perry also held a Live Auction at 9 p.m. to raise more money with 100% of the proceeds going to Foothill Family Services. While standing on top of his gorgeous bar top with a microphone in hand, Perry offered a Pizza class for six people at his restaurant with his master pizza chef, Michele Galifi, to the highest bidder. Our friends were generous winners. Other wonderful auction prizes included a private beer tour with tasting at Bootlegger’s Brewery, two tickets to a six class Neapolis wine series and more. I IMG_5004estimated Perry raised about $30,000 to give to Foothill Family Services.

Guests felt generous as they crowded into the Garden Room, transformed into a Wine Garden, to taste wine from 20 different U.S and Italian wineries. Some of the representatives included Stag’s Leap, Rutherford Ranch, Villa Sandi and Flatten. In the center of the Wine Garden was a whole roasted suckling pig with house made salsa verde and mostarde. Sliced peaches resting in burrata with pistachio and marinated olives were devoured.

Head Bartender Kris Doyle and his crew concocted creative and aromatic cocktails. Some of the guests enjoyed Gelee – a modern take on the classic Jello shot in the bar area.

We fortunately arrived early and were able to secure a booth in the cocktail bar. It was next to the four piece band with a singer who could belt out the notes better than many in town. They were terrific.

IMG_5007Upstairs was packed with patrons enjoying Southern California craft beers from The Bruery, Eagle Rock Brewery, Telegraph Brewery, and  Bootleggers Brewery. Trattoria Neapolis offers 14 beers on tap and some craft beers from Italy. The small bites near the beer balcony included Sicilian pork meatballs, steamed mussels, lasagna and roast duck with dried cherry marmolada and rabbit with rosemary.

In the Spirit Cellar were tastes of premium Bourbon, Rye, Vodka, Single Malt Scotch, Blended Scotch and Limoncello. Nearby were a line of people waiting to taste a plate of veal Scaloppini, wood grilled Prime New York steak and Barolo risotto.

After the live auction, coffee and desserts were served. As guests left, they received a goodie-swag bag with theatre passes to an upcoming Pasadena Playhouse production and a two-for-one Caltech production certificate. Also included was a bag of ground coffee from Stumptown coffee and a Wells Fargo key chain.

Happy Anniversary Perry, Chef Bryant Wigger and the staff at Trattoria Napolis. You sure know how to throw one heck of a great party!

336 S Lake Ave  Pasadena, CA 91101
(626) 792-3000

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