By Merv Hecht

My brother in law writes music. One of his hits was “Searchin.’ ” That’s what I’m doing now. My two favorite Italian restaurants have recently closed, and I’m having a problem finding my new favorite Italian hang-out.

I have a history with Italian restaurants. In order to stay at UCLA in 1955 the dean said I had to pass a foreign language course, and I chose Italian. I had never taken a foreign language and I didn’t even know what conjugation meant, at least not in the grammatical sense. So I ate every night for one semester at Mario’s Italian restaurant in Westwood Village, and the waiters helped me pass my Italian exam.

When I became a lawyer and started to make $8,000 a year, and could afford the very best restaurants, I started taking clients to Valentino’s in Santa Monica. What a treat! Piero Salvaggio was always there to kiss me on the cheeks and select a wonderful bottle of wine. The food was just like in Italy. Now it’s closed.

More recently I’ve been enjoying Lago on the Promenade. The owner Wes and his wife are so friendly. The seafood pasta and seafood soup were wonderful. The menu was extensive and it was never too loud, and so convenient after a movie across the street. Now it too has closed.

What’s an Italia-phile to do? I started searching. We rarely go east of the 405 freeway, but for this task we ended up at Osteria Mozza, on Highland and Melrose Ave. My wife and I took our two sons, because we knew we were going to order more than we could eat.

The first task was to qualify the sommelier, who showed up at our table right away. She had a wine list, like at Valentino, much too long to read before dinner. She knew our friends at Castello di Verduno, although the list only had their lesser wines, not their wonderful Barolo. She knew what she was talking about, so we let her select an Italian wine from Northern Tuscany, not over $100, blended with Sangiovese and some Merlot to smooth out the Sangiovese. It was OK but probably not worth $90, although the price was mitigated by her waiving the $40 corkage fee on the wonderful bottle of Uruguayan Tannat wine that we brought with us. The Tuscan wine retails at $44, which means the restaurant bought it at $22 and should mark it up no more than $66. The wines I would have liked to order were in the $200+ range or more. But at least we had found a wine list reminiscent of Valentino in the good old days.

So we ordered the dishes most highly prized in internet reviews. The mozzarella tasting was OK, but not worth $26 and not worth the trip. The little ears pasta with sausage and fennel was very good. The cheese ravioli at the next table looked wonderful. The duck was OK as just duck, but the skin wasn’t crisp and there was nothing on the side. We asked the waiter if the lamb stuffed grape leaves were spicy, because my wife won’t eat anything spicy and he said “not at all.” They arrived and she tasted one and spit it out—it was really spicy from red pepper. That said, the rest of us thought they were the best lamb stuffed grape leaves we’ve ever had.

We didn’t stop there. The grilled octopus was slightly over-cooked, but not bad, with nice little potatoes on the side. The sweetbreads were a disaster: I like them with the texture of oysters. These were little fried nodules in a bed of green leaves with absolutely no sweetbread taste. But this negative experience was overshadowed by a wonderful chocolate caramel dessert.

So what can I say? We are still searching. Orto in Santa Monica is not bad. I lunch with clients at Obika from time to time. But, in the long run, the days of fine Italian dining seem to have gone the way of fine French food. To find it you have to go to the country itself.

I would go back to Osteria Mozza for an occasion warranting a $2-300 bottle of wine. But I would just order the Italian pasta dishes. I think they should scrap their attempt at pretentious French and Mediterranean foods, and stick with what they seem really good at, genuine Italian foods. I yearn for the wonderful rabbit and wild boar stews from the Piedmont, the slow cooked red wine and tomato sauces from Tuscany, and the seafood from Sicily. I miss little pieces of parmesan cheese with a few drops of 50-year-old balsamic vinegar. I love ripe Italian tomatoes with fresh garlic, basil leaves, oil and vinegar—maybe some anchovies. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if a restaurant like this would have a few special wines by the glass, like an aged Barolo, that had been opened in the morning so they could be ready to drink in the evening?

Merv Hecht, like many Harvard Law School graduates, went into the wine business after law. In 1988, he began writing restaurant reviews and books. His latest book is “The Instant Wine Connoisseur” and it is available on Amazon. Or you might like his attempt at humor in “Great Cases I Lost.” He currently works for several companies that source and distribute food and beverages, including wines, internationally. Please send your comments to: mervynhecht@yahoo.com.

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