As I’ve said many times, with so many good restaurants on the Westside, who would want to drive to Downtown L.A. for dinner? But what if you are already Downtown at the opera or the symphony? That’s how we got to Bestia, which we would never have found but for the fact that a friend’s son is now working there. And we were glad we went there.
Everything was a surprise.
We expected the chef to be Italian, but he’s Israeli-American. He might as well be Italian because from his resume it looks like he has worked in almost every major Italian restaurant in town (except Valentino and Vincente, which are a bit more high end).
We expected a cozy place for the Downtown loft crowd, but it is high-ceiling, hard surfaces, industrial-tech. But yes, the Downtown young loft crowd was there in droves.
We expected to be amazed by the meat dishes, but that’s not what most people were eating. The most popular dish seemed to be the Neapolitan style pizza, which happens to not be my favorite. So I skipped it. And I skipped the beef heart tartare, although it did sound interesting. I wanted the veal ribs in broth but didn’t get to it. And I tasted a friend’s lobster crudo, but I didn’t think it had much flavor.
Perhaps my expectations for the sausage plate were too high. The sausages were excellent, particularly a rich boar sausage. The rustic bread with it was as good as it gets, and well matched. But how good can a sausage be? These were as good as anywhere else in town, including that French guy who used to be in Culver City until last year.
But then I had the grilled octopus over lentils, which was excellent and is a dish hard to find. My preference is the charred Greek version just with lemon, but this was perfectly cooked, very flavorful, and with the lentils underneath it was like two courses, so it worked well to share it around.
And then we all ordered pasta and suddenly I was in heaven. In all I tasted three pastas, and I wanted all of them for myself. (Mother used to say my eyes were bigger than my stomach, but now I think it’s the other way around).
The bucatini was the first. This is the traditional “amatriciana” preparation from Umbria; firm noodles with a sauce made from “guanciale,” smoked pork cheeks — something like bacon but better. The melding of slightly acidic tomato sauce, salty guanciale and rich pecorino cheese makes for a delicious combination.
Next was the pappardelle di castagne. Pappardelle are wide noodles, and these were flavored with chestnuts, egg yolk and mushrooms. This was the first time I’ve found this dish in the United States, and I would go back for more.
Finally was the cavatelli alla norcina; ricotta cheese dumplings with pork sausage, black truffles, and grated cheese, which they say was grana but tasted a bit less salty. I never find black truffles to add much to pasta (contrary to white truffles) but the very flavorful pork sausage made this a winner.
I wanted to try the pasta with sea urchin and squid ink but saved it for another time. I love pasta made, as they do in Venice, with black squid ink. What I saw here was not like that, and did not look as richly flavored with the squid ink as I like, but I’ll keep an open mind on that.
There are a lot of good restaurants in Santa Monica for pasta. Valentino’s of course is hard to beat. But that’s a different kind of restaurant for a different occasion. This is a high-tech, casual, medium priced place serving a predominantly young crowd, and serving a lot of pizza. To find such great pasta here was quite a surprise. And the prices are a bit better than in the high-end expensive Italian restaurants. I spent $180 for four people when last there, without wine. The salami appetizer was the most expensive dish, at $30, but it was enough for all four of us. The pasta dishes were in the low $20 range.
But then there’s the wine list! I know the restaurant just opened and they haven’t focused on the list yet, but this is the worst list in an Italian-meat specialty restaurant I’ve ever seen. The only explanation I have is that the chef must not drink. Nor the manager.
With a good pasta dish I like a nice Tuscan wine from the Sangiovese grape. Or maybe a Tuscan Cabernet blend. Or perhaps a good Nero D’Avola, the black grapes from Sicily. Better yet, if I have time to decant it (maybe for the second bottle) a Barolo or Barbaresco from the Piedmont region, where the Nebbiolo grapes grow so well.
But not here. Here you are offered a “Pittnauer sweigelt blaufrankish st.laurent Burgenland” which my beginning German seems to translate into “two dollar French Burgundy-style wine” or something like that. Whatever the translation, it was terrible. Or you could try the Casalegrande barbera/bonarda blend, which had a slightly bitter taste and no fruit. Or, as a last chance, I was offered the Verduno pellaverga. How did that get on the list? This is a wine made by my friends Franco and Gabriella Burlotto in their beautiful castle at the top of the village of Verduno. This is the site of some of the earliest Barolo wines in the Piedmont district, and they still make some of the best Barbaresco and Barolo anywhere. The Pelaverga grape is a novelty that only grows in that small region, and is sort of like Beaujolais nouveau — a light spring wine, almost like a ros√©, that attracts multitudes of German tourists speeding down the autostrasse to quaff the new vintage before dinner.
Surprisingly, I plan to go back for more pasta, and maybe that veal dish. And there are a few other authentic Italian dishes to try. There’s an exit off Interstate 10 close to the restaurant, so on a weekend day when there’s not much traffic on the freeway it’s only 30 minutes away. But I’m bringing my own wine!
If you go
2121 E. Seventh Place
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 email@example.com.