There are so many Italian restaurants opening up that I can’t keep up with them. So instead of just reviewing one at a time, I’m now doing two at a time, and in this case it covers three because two are the same.
So we start with the new Hostaria del Piccolo on Rose Avenue in Venice. Now don’t be confused. Yes there is a Piccolo restaurant elsewhere in Venice owned by the same people, but it’s high end. And yes there is a restaurant on Sixth Street and Broadway in Santa Monica with exactly the same name and same menu, also owned by the same crowd. These guys know how to replicate.
What does this Hostaria have that the others don’t? To begin with, there’s Valeria, the lovely manager from Bellagio, Italy. Then there’s the chef, Joseph Mitchell. He’s way too high end to be here, but he seems happy here anyway. He’s from Boston and knows his way around fish, so as you would expect the grilled salmon here is terrific, with crisp skin and a touch of balsamic vinegar for flavor.
And the new location is in the hot new area on Rose in Venice near the Whole Foods Market. Amazing how a neighborhood can grow when a company doing $12 billion a year opens a high-end market nearby!
The pasta at both restaurants is very good, but there’s a lot of good pasta now everywhere. The pizza is a bit doughy for my taste, but the toppings are good and exotic. I particularly was impressed with the fried mushrooms breaded with garbanzo bean flour (instead of the more commonly used wheat-based flour).
The interior is all hard surfaces, and the seating is not very comfortable. It’s for young people and I’ll bet it’s really loud at night. But there’s a nice patio, so when the weather permits it can be quiet outside.
But the real reason to go to these two Hostaria restaurants is for the antipasti plates, which are very special and hard to find elsewhere. My favorite is the grilled octopus over toasted vegetables, (or baby octopus with polenta.) The combination of the grilled flavor with the seafood taste and the soft, almost sweet vegetable bites go really well together.
But there’s more. How about a little Faro salad with some pesto flavor, or salt water eels marinated with sweet onions with polenta, or roasted wild boar sausage on polenta? Or maybe crunchy fried calamari and shrimp, or ricotta and mushrooms?
I don’t know who orders the crispy fried pigs ears in salsa verde, but maybe it’s a treat. I do know that the sliced beef tongue in tonata sauce is delicious, and the grilled calamari is very tasty.
So those are the dishes I think make these two restaurants a go-to destination. The wine list is also well chosen, but usually I treat myself to one of the great Italian beers on their excellent brew list. The desserts sound good, but I haven’t tried them yet.
Also having opened for business at about the same time is Il Piccolo Ritrovo in Pacific Palisades. While it’s the fourth or fifth Italian restaurant to open in Pacific Palisades, which has become a hotbed of restaurants, this one really hits the spot. And it feels almost like home to me as it is located in a building that I built back in 1968, in which I made a spot for Jacopo’s Pizza, which occupied it for many years.
At the new restaurant, as soon as you sit down you are served warm bread, almost like a pizza crust, from their Italian-made oven.
This is where I now go for pizza; not their special Napolitano pizza from the special oven, but just the regular New York-style pizza with its super thin crust and delicious cheese, tomato sauce and selection of toppings. I always take mushrooms. And the pasta is surprisingly good. There are 14 pasta dishes on the menu, and the three I’ve had were all exceptional. And do you know how hard it is to find a good spaghetti carbonara in this town? Here it is!
Not only the pizzas and pastas are good. I’ve had good luck with various assorted dishes such as a very good white fish, sliced veal with mushrooms, and an excellent chicken breast in lemon and caper sauce.
One of the best surprises here are the prices. You can eat and drink well here for $20 to $25 a person. There is an ordinary wine list, and a kid’s menu. It’s a nice family place.
It’s hard to see how so many Italian restaurants can survive, but these three are among the best of the new crop, and I think they will make the cut.
If you go
Hostaria del Piccolo, Venice
512 Rose Ave.
Hostaria del Piccolo, Santa Monica
Santa Monica, Calif.
Il Piccolo Ritrovo
15415 W. Sunset Blvd.
Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.