Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Italian Food, A Review

There’s this little Italian restaurant in Santa Monica that we’ve always passed, never venturing to go inside because, after perusing the outside menu one day, we realized that the price range is not that of a casual dining experience, but more of the “special occasion” variety. Well, finally, and fortunately, a special occasion happened that deserved a reservation at this little, refined Italian watering hole.

We almost laughed as we entered, half expecting the host to recognize and chastise us for passing by so many times and not stopping in. But he beckoned us to follow him with a warm smile, ushering us to a table along one of the dark walls. The restaurant was small and cozy, with two walls lined with oak wine barrels-turned-wine racks, full of wine of course. He presented us both with menus (“Grazie.” “Prego.”) and handed MyL the wine list. MyL promptly passed it over the table to me, “She’ll be ordering the wine tonight.” Smile.

Our server came shortly thereafter plunking a bread basket on the table and with the slightest Italian accent asked what kind of water we wanted. No olive oil came with the bread. Looking at the menu, I noticed that we would have to order separately. Hmmm…I would forgive this if the olive oil was good--and the one they offered was…very good, in fact (Olio & Olive). But before jumping to order some, we tried the bread first…as I continued to read the wine list. The bread was soft and doughy; it was dusted with cheese, parsley, and dried bits of garlic; it did not need any oil.

As for the wine selection, well, after getting MyL to agree to enjoy a glass or two with me, our choices opened up significantly with the list of available half bottles. I was craving a Montepulciano, so asked the server what came closest. He consulted with the sommelier who, as I predicted, suggested the two Brunello di Montalcino. We ordered the 2001 Col D’Orcia (priced at a none-too-modest $58; this was a special occasion after all). It was deliciously tannicky, dry, full-body, and had a lingering, smooth finish. It would be perfect with what I had in mind for dinner.

The menu itself was full of rich one-off Italian classics (homemade beet tagliolini with homemade quail sausage, sea urchin carpaccio, veal shank and pheasant). We listened to the specials and the chef’s tasting menu for $70 each ($125 each if we wanted to top each plate with white truffle shavings, otherwise they would all be topped with black truffle shavings, save one dish of our choosing to have the white). We decided to order from the menu, and our server was gracious enough to split each dish for us free of charge.

We started with an Italian classic: crudo di carciofi e parmigiano (thinly sliced celery and artichoke hearts served with arugula, shaved parmesan and a lemon dressing). It was light, lemony, and crunchy. A perfect dish to start with. From there I was torn between pan-seared sweet breads served in a bed of soft polenta and marsala wine demiglaze or cognac chicken liver terrine served with Tuscan croutons. We ordered the terrina di fegatini di pollo con crostini di pane all’aglio. The terrine was huge, larger than the servings offered at a specialty food store. And the garlic crostini was a very complementary backdrop to the creamy, earthy terrine. I ate most of this dish.

We followed our second course with a pasta: ravioli di brasato su salsa di porcini (homemade ravioli filled with braised beef filet mignon served in a bed of porcini mushrooms and topped with butter and sage sauce). MyL chose this course, and what a good choice indeed. I love brown butter and sage sauces to begin with, so adding this pasta (covered in more parmesan, mind you) to this sauce was about six bites of heaven for me. The ravioli filled with the filet mignon was substantial, yet not too heavy for the delicate pasta. The flavors blended together to create delectable, little edible pillows.

Our final course was simple, yet classic: costiccine d’agnello nostrano alle due senapi (marinated Colorado lamb chops served with Dijon and grain mustard sauce), ordered rare with warm centers. The lamb was crusted over from carmelization on the outside and perfectly juicy and bloody on the inside. As we finished our fourth and final course, I commented to MyL, “If we were not sitting in this restaurant, surrounded by these people, I’d pick up this lamb chop and clean the bone!”

Our server came to our table then and asked how we enjoyed the meal. “We didn’t enjoy it at all…as you can see by our completely cleaned plates.” His eyes twinkled, “Yes, I can tell.” And I could tell that he’s proud of the food they serve…as well he should be.

Any dessert? Cappuccino? Espresso? No, thank you. Nothing can follow a meal like this except the time afterwards to savor the taste and appreciate the experience.

Molto bene. Grazie. Prego. Buonanotte. Yes, indeed. It was a good night.


Josh said...

you should try "Vincenzo" on Montana in SM. authentic, tasty..etc.
Get the branzino...

Sonya said...

FYI, this restaurant is La Botte (www.labottesantamonica.com).

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