As outdoor dining reopens and local restaurants begin the road to recovery the Daily Press is highlighting one excellent eatery a week sharing its history, pandemic struggles, and signature dishes.

This week the spotlight is on LA Puglia — a brand new Southern Italian restaurant at 1621 Wilshire Blvd, serving authentic Pugliese fare with a flair.

The story behind LA Puglia

The idea for LA Puglia was born in 2018 when Co-Owner, Chef and Interior Designer Valentina Bianco was chatting with a group of friends in Italy who all wanted to open a panzerotti restaurant. Panzerotto, a fried pizza dough pocket stuffed with cheese and fresh tomato sauce, is a famous street food in Puglia, but almost impossible to find in LA.

“From panzerotto I thought that this was a great opportunity to bring more specialties from our region, so we moved from being a one item only restaurant to featuring a wide variety of dishes,” said Bianco. “And, we didn’t stop there. I have a passion for baking natural and organic products, so we added a bakery with bread, pizza, fresh focaccia and a small retail section with the best products from Puglia.”

Puglia is a region in Southern Italy that forms the heel of the country’s “boot” along the Mediterranean coast.

While Italian restaurants are a dime a dozen in Los Angeles, Pugliese food is shockingly underrepresented. LA Puglia plans on changing that.

Everything about the restaurant celebrates the region, from the wine, the natural products, the vintage furniture, artwork, handmade ceramic dishes, and of course the food.

“LA Puglia has managed to recreate the magical charm of sun drenched southern Italy here in LA,” said Yule Caise, a regular customer who has spent extensive time in the Puglia region. “The distinct foods and traditions native to Bari and Lecce can now be found here in Santa Monica. It’s a real treat. This is rustic food for the refined palette.”

The menu itself is a clever cultural crash course on Puglia and contains many hidden stories and references.

The traditional puccia sandwiches are all named in the Leccese dialect, which comes from Bianco’s hometown of Lecce. The appetizers are named after fun slang expressions from Bari, the capital city in Puglia.

Each pizza is named after a beautiful town in the region, the bruschettas are song titles, and the pastas are named after the friends and family members who inspired the recipe.

Challenges of opening during Covid

LA Puglia operates in the space formerly occupied by Nawab of India and it was a true labor of love to transform the restaurant into its current bright and airy iteration.

The remodeling process took more than a year. In late December 2020, Bianco was thrilled to finally open LA Puglia’s doors and connect with her customers, even though the business launched as to-go only.

“Through all the time of construction, I really missed the beauty of relating to customers. I truly love hospitality,” said Bianco. “When we opened outdoor dining I was so excited to go serve the tables and finally spend more time with my guests.”

According to Bianco, the biggest challenge the restaurant faces is hiring employees. Many hospitality workers don’t want to work because of Covid or others prefer to stay on unemployment.

Bianco works around the clock to get everything accomplished — baking fresh goods at 4 a.m., sleeping at midnight, and sometimes taking meetings at 1 a.m. to speak with her Italian suppliers.

She said she is driven by sheer adrenaline and a limitless love for the cuisine and hospitality.

Although the restaurant is new, community members have been extremely supportive by writing excellent Yelp reviews, posting about LA Puglia on Nextdoor, and coming in often to pick up an early morning espresso, a pasticciotto or grab a late night gelato.

What to order right now

One would be remiss to travel to LA Puglia and not try a panzerotto. These freshly fried treats come with a variety of meat, cheese, and tomato sauce fillings and, like everything else on the menu, are made with natural and organic products.

So far the most popular dinner dish is the Nonno Vito squid ink linguine with seafood, named after Bianco’s grandfather.

“He was a total seafood lover. I used to spend all the summer with him when I was a child and there wasn’t a day when we did not go fishing together,” said Bianco.

The puccia sandwiches are an excellent lunch option. They are made with organic stone-ground flour and baked in a wood-fire oven in the traditional leccese style. Sweet lovers are welcome to try the tiramisu, cannoli, or any flavor of handmade gelato.

“Food from Puglia is extremely simple, but not easy. It’s based on a few fresh top quality ingredients and is all about balance,” said Bianco. “We don’t use as much cream as in Northern Italy, it’s more about vegetables, red sauces, fish and of course panzerotti,” said Bianco.

LA Puglia is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Sunday for outdoor dining and to-go.

Clara@smdp.com