Aw, Malm…

Hey, remember that $20 Malm Cellars pinot that I wrote about way back when? Well, the new vintage is out. $37 at your local shop. Ouch.

Capitalism puts bread on my table every night, and most of the time we’re happy together, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have words every once in a while.

December 5, 2007. Wine Talk. 1 comment.

‘zza.

ANYWAY…

I feel like an apology is in order, but 1) my lack of updates has not diminished the quality of anyone’s life, 2) it’s not like you’re paying for it, and 3) after the first week, I doubt you even noticed I wasn’t here.

So tonight, I wanted to talk a little bit about pizza. Which you might have guessed. (The title is inspired by a pizza parlor in Oakland called Zza’s that my family went to once or twice when I was very young. I have no recollection of the quality of the food, although I think I remember that they had an electric sign “ZZA’S” sign inside that they would light up for your birthday. Or maybe I’m just making all this up.)

I finally figured out that for all the things that my oven screws up completely, for all the effort that I have to put into not buring every single thing I throw in there, the one thing it can do really well is cook pizza. I’ve been making a lot of pizza recently, because I enjoy making the dough, it’s easy to find good toppings, and it’s really the only from-scratch bread-type object I can pull off. Plus one batch of dough can last two nights, or one round of pizza plus grissini, which I made tonight. Those turned out pretty good too.

So remember how I said how hot my oven gets – 600 or whatever? Yeah, that’s not right. It has to be much hotter than that. I started noticing that when I put pizzas in the oven after I’d turned the oven on and left it to its own devices for twenty minutes, that the pie would be done in about half the time that any recipe I could find would estimate. And the only reason I thought it was at 600 was because that’s as high as my oven thermometer goes.  My new guess is closer to 700, although without a professional thermometer I may never know.  There may not be an upper limit on how hot it gets – it may just get hotter and hotter until it explodes, and you’re left standing there, fully scorched like a cartoon character, a set of blinking eyes in a body of ash.

Mostly that’s fine, because you want your oven as hot as possible for pizza. It actually works out to my advantage. The only problem is that I don’t have a pizza stone, so my poor baking pan gets all bent out of shape over the heat. Literally. Like Carson Wells, it’s just not prepared for the intensity of the task I have asked of it.  I suppose I’ll have to spring for a stone soon, before my pan shatters in the oven. Plus I have to dress the pizza on the preheated pan because I don’t have a serving board to slide a dressed pizza onto the pan with, so that’s a frantic two minutes. But all in all, the current gear makes a good, crispy crust with a nice sizzle.

Pizza is a great do-it-yourself activity if you plan at least a day ahead – I find that a night in the fridge really gives the crust a good tang.  Here’s the recipe I use for the crust if you’re interested. I’d leave more crust-space than F&W does, and be sure to brush the edges with olive oil. But it’s a good, solid recipe to start with if you don’t have one already.

December 1, 2007. Food Talk. 1 comment.

Back.

Oh yes. Where have I been? To quote a wiser man than I…

“Mawaige.”

Yeah, J and I got married. It was a blast. You should have been there. Actually, if you’re reading this, it’s very likely you WERE there. J was beautiful. I’d post a picture but that might make her slightly upset, what with the ruining of the anonymity and all. Trust me, it was an amazing day, one for the books.  The caterer – Trumpetvine Catering, if you’re curious – did a great job. All local produce, everything tasted great. Highest recommendation if you’re thinking about a wedding in the Bay Area in the near or far future. Wines seemed to be received well. Honeymoon was lots of fun, but cut short by a nasty cold. Thanks, Dave! Just kidding. Actually, I’m not kidding – Dave did a lot for us.  As did lots of folks, who all know who they are.

Oh yeah, and we went to The French Laundry.

I guess I could go into honeymoon stuff now, but there’s so much I haven’t touched on in the last few weeks…maybe a lightning round is in order just to get everything out that’s been stewing for a while. Onwards and upwards!

Girasole – only worth it on nights when La Buca is packed.

Il Capriccio Pizza – overpriced but decent pizza. I’ll take Casa Bianca, though.

Bottlerock – unimpressive, but not terrible.

Yai Noodle Shop (on Vermont) – a good neighborhood option. But seriously – cash only?

Cafe Venezia (Berkeley) – not bad, not great. A workmanlike effort.

2004 Zenato Valpolicella Ripasso -  a nice wine and worth searching out for less than $25.

C&O Trattoria – house chianti equals good times. Gnocchi bolognese better than I expected, too. Atmosphere (and good company, if you have it) make this place.

2005 Zind Humbrechet Riesling – a little underwhelming. Many better rieslings for less than $20, in my opinion.

2004 Two Hands Shiraz Lily’s Garden – overrated! Now $20 more per bottle than last year’s vintage, up to about $55. A complete rip-off.

2001 Paitin di Pasquero Barbaresco Serra Boella – lovely perfume, very elegant. A good deal.

2004 Casisano Colombaio Rosso di Montalicino – decent. Very, very bright and acidic. Almost un-sangiovese-like. Needs time.

Oinkster – burger is good. Pulled pork is whatever.

Coming up next – some Napa wineries and Ad Hoc. Good to be back!

April 11, 2007. Restaurants - Bay Area, Restaurants - LA, Wine for the wedding, Wine Talk. 2 comments.

Wine Blogging Wednesday #31: Box Wine.

It’s all relative. That’s what they say.

Ask a wine critic what makes a great wine experience. You’ll probably hear words like balance, power, elegance, subtlety, beauty, depth. All expected, to some degree. All defensible. Respectable. Words you’d find yourself nodding along to as you hear them. But thing about your own wine experiences – your truly memorable wine experiences. (If you have had any – maybe you’ve never had a glass of wine before in your life. In that case, onward, ye temperate soldier! Cast not thine eyes upon the vines of treachery as thou drivest up Highway 29!) I’d be willing to bet that for nearly all of them, there’s a good story to go along with that wine.

Think about it – how many great wine experience stories go something like, “I bought this wine at the store. I took it home and drank it. It was great. It changed my life.” Probably not many – at least not that indistinct. If the wine really was that great, you probably remember what time of year it was, if not what day, who you were with, where you were, if you ate anything with it, and how long it took you to finish it off. Just like Tolstoy says, it’s all about context. Well first he says it’s about transitions, then context, but I can’t think of a good way to fit transitions into this discussion so forget that part. Who cares about Tolstoy anyway. Anna Karenina is overrated. That’s right, Nabokov, I said it!

All right, time for this post to go somewhere. Point is, wine is as much about the environment it is enjoyed in as it is about the quantitative pleasure that it itself can bring. And all of this goes a great deal toward explaining why I found the 2004 Killer Juice Cabernet Sauvignon, my contribution for this month’s Wine Blogging Wednesday event, not all that bad of a wine. As box wines go, it probably isn’t the best you can find, or even the near-best, but under the right circumstances it can be enjoyed as a good sub-$10 bottle.

What’s that, you say? You’ve had Killer Juice Cab and it tastes like someone poured a gallon of grape juice into a pot, boiled it down to half its size, then left it to its own devices for a year in a basement? OK, that’s a valid opinion. I’m not here to say you’re wrong. As I said, it’s all about context. Let me set the scene for my tasting:  We were on a bus halfway up a mountain in the middle of the Mendocino County woods. Middle of the night. No electricity – not even a flashlight. A few candles so we could see what we were doing. For food, we had a takeout pizza we’d picked up from town half an hour back. That bus is a place I’ve spent a great deal of time in and around over the last five years, much of it spent with the two friends of mine whom I happened to be sharing the bus with at the time. So I was in a good place, but certainly not the kind of place one would normally conduct any kind of wine tasting. Did the context affect my perception of the wine? Hell yes. Do I care? Nope.

Oh right, tasting note. The Killer Juice Cabernet Sauvignon came in a three-liter box painted black with a wacky flaming logo. (Too dark in the bus for photos, sorry.) The spigot took some work to extract, which was mildly annoying, but we didn’t experience any drip problems like boxwines.org did. Once poured (into coffee mugs), this wine has a much more purplish tinge than most cabernet; at first glance one might take it for a petite sirah. Not much of a nose; grapey, a little sweet. On the palate, well, fermented grape juice…no harsh metallic taste or alcoholic burn, but not much other than some unassuming fruit, maybe of the blueberry variety. No finish to speak of. Ultimately, I don’t think I’ll make this buy for my own kitchen any time soon. But as we huddled around the candles in the bus and ate cold pizza, it worked for us.

Thanks for the great topic, boxwines.org!

March 14, 2007. Wine Blogging Wednesdays, Wine Talk. Leave a comment.

Open for business.

After at least six months (and probably more) of delays, setbacks, postponements, setponements, and postbacks, K&L Wines finally opened their Hollywood branch this past weekend. Huzzah.

K&L exterior

I’m a big fan of K&L.  I like their selections, I like their prices, but more importantly I like the way they think about wine and the way they talk about wine. When K&L wholeheartedly recommends a wine, I can feel reasonably certain that it’s because they like the wine in the same way that I would like it – that is, as an expression of the grapes grown for the wine and the way that the land they were grown on affected them. Read Greg St. Clair’s thoughts about Brunello di Montalcino, for example, and you’ll understand that the wines he cares the most for are the wines that serve as windows to what the sangiovese grape truly is in Tuscany, not simply the wines that are seamless, international, fruit-driven efforts. The same goes for Clyde Beffa and the wines of Bordeaux, and a lot of the other senior K&L staff members think along the same lines as far as I can tell. K&L also has one of the best online presences in the wine selling community, with a comprehensive site, a fun blog, and detailed descriptions of a lot of their wines (although some of their notes are simply taken from the winemaker’s notes, but whatever).

So you can see why the prospect of K&L, which was usually a sort of bonus trip for me whenever I found myself in the Bay Area for a weekend with a little cash and some spare time, coming to LA was a pretty cool thing for me. And on Monday, J and I took a trip over to the new store – less than 10 minutes away in Hollywood traffic! – to see what’s what. First impression: it’s got a parking lot! Always a huge plus at the Sunset and Vine catastrophe. And it’s alarmingly close to my gym. I can see that going one of two ways: either I set up some system of pain and reward by working out and only then allowing myself to go grab a bottle, or I start out driving to the gym, but end up sneaking back into the house twenty minutes later with two bottles of Leoville-Poyferre stuffed under my shirt. “No hon, those are just my awesome abs that I’ve been working on since I go to the gym so often. Hey, where’s the bottle opener? I have to…uh…do something…over here…with the door closed. Don’t come in!”

K&L interior

Inside, it’s a bit smaller than I thought it would be. Not to say that it’s small, but the Wine House doesn’t seem to be in any danger of losing its advantage of comprehensiveness. It’s a very big, open space, and at the moment it feels rather hollow – hopefully with time, it’ll have more of a lived-in vibe. They also look like they’re still in the process of stocking the aisles; you can see the empty spaces on the shelves in the photo. So far it looks like they’re going to have a considerable French wine selection (the biggest section of the store by far), a good number of Italian wines (not surprising considering that Greg St. Clair is running this newest location), and a decent helping of everything else. The staff was friendly, albeit a little harried as it seemed like there were still some kinks to be worked out with the cashier computers.

They’re offering tastings on a semi-regular basis on the weekends, which I’m looking forward to. In fact, next weekend features an Italian wine tasting with Greg St. Clair!  Sweet.

I ended up getting a couple bottles of one wine that I’m very happy with, but unfortunately I can’t share it with you because one of them is a gift and that person will probably read this before they get the gift, so…sorry. In any case, however, if you’re in the LA area and you are feeling like you could use yet another wine store in your life – who couldn’t?! – give K&L a spin. It’s good times.

March 13, 2007. Wine stores. 1 comment.

Cab franc of the week. Again.

Oh friends, it has been too long, I know. All four of you probably spent a collective 8.4 seconds checking this page for something new over the last two weeks. Sorry about that. But look – I come bearing excuses! Like a trip to Northern California, to a land without cell phone reception, let alone internet service, a bad cold that left my taste buds as dead as others’, and an unusually busy period in my non-job workload. All in all, I should have managed a few posts here and there regardless, but a lot of the things I had planned on blogging about simply fell through or I was forced to postpone. But they will come!

I’m back now, though. It’s a little odd to be writing again after the layoff – like taking that first run after a layoff of a few months – you move a little gingerly, not quite in the zone yet. The first run’s a short one, since you don’t want to sprain something your first time back. Feels good to stretch the legs, though. OK, enough running metaphors. Even if nothing else comes together soon, I’ll at least have the cab francs to fall back on – I ordered a whole bushel of them from the Wine Library last week (with free shipping!). It was a great opportunity to nab some wines that just don’t make it out to the West Coast very often, if at all. So we’re packed to the rafters with Bourgueil, Chinon, and Saumur-Champigny. I couldn’t be happier.

So without further ado, here’s this week’s cab franc of the week.

This week’s wine wasn’t actually part of the parcel that came in the mail. I picked up the 2005 Philippe Alliet Chinon at the San Francisco Wine Trading Company, a terrific little store out on Taraval in the city. If you’re ever in the area, I recommend heading out that way to check out their stuff – a lot of interesting French and Italian wines, plus interesting bottles from all over.

Chinon is a town in the Indre-et-Loire area of the Loire region. The Chinon reds are traditionally served a little on the cold side, but not as cold as, say, Lambrusco. The reds from this area are predominantly cabernet franc-based, of course.

Trying the Alliet Chinon for the first time was an interesting experience, because as soon as the cork came out this wine came at me with some serious barnyard action. Not just barnyard, actually. More like…manure. Yep, barnyard, manure, some dark green vegetables…quite the aroma! Almost enough to put one off, except that despite the, uh, eccentricity of the bouquet, it sill seemed very much like a composed aroma, like the wine was intentionally structured this way, as opposed to natural yeasts running amok in the wine and turning each bottle into a farmland crapshoot (no pun intended). There was a force here, and hand that seemed to shape the nose, so to speak, so I decided not to knock any points off for it…but if you’re not into truly rustic bouquets in your wine, I would avoid this bottle. If you see it on the rack at your favorite wine store, pinch your nose as you walk by, just to be safe.

On the palate, though, this wine really shows its stuff, with notes of chocolate and vegetables like asparagus and bell pepper, integrated in that way that only makes sense in a cab franc. It’s a very smooth wine that coats the palate without overpowering it – very pleasurable to hold in the mouth. There are firm tannins here, but I’m not quite sure how much longer it should be kept – it’s drinking very well right now, although I suppose a couple years in the bottle might not hurt it. A great example of a unique wine that expressed a well-composed idea of grape, vintner, and place. It definitely marches to the beat of its own drummer, which is a good thing, even if that drummer could probably use a bath.

All in all, this is a distinctly idiosyncratic wine that I found very enjoyable, and if you like French cab francs, I recommend you seek this bottle out. At around $18, it’s not a huge investment and it’s a great example of the good value coming out of the Loire Valley right now.

March 12, 2007. Cab Franc of the Week. Leave a comment.

Now let us praise cabernet franc.

I was going to do this big intro about what the most underrated grape in the vitis vinifera family is these days, but I suppose the title sort of ruins it, doesn’t it?

So let’s get right into it: in my (admittedly worthless) opinion, cabernet franc is a sorely underappreciated grape in the U.S., and across the globe. It’s a grape that is thought of among many wine drinkers as a blending grape, something to lend complexity to Bordeaux blends and some California cabernets and meritage blends. Yet as Michael Steinberger notes, it’s the primary grape in the vaunted Cheval Blanc, and a key player in several other Bordeaux houses of great repute.

Cabernet franc is a grape that can wear many guises. It can be young and fruity, meant to be drunk very young and without painstaking introspection; it can be lean and herbal, lending a thin but potent wedge to drive into big, burly wines from regions like Veneto; or it can be peppery and a little tannic, with a core of spicy fruit, making it one of the great food wines of the world and a terrific bargain to boot. These last kind are the type you’ll most likely see in the Loire valley, where cabernet franc is the primary red grape and where great cab fran-based wines (occasionally bolstered with small amounts of cabernet sauvignon or other red grapes) can be found in such regions as Bourgueil, Chinon, and Saumur-Champigny.

A lot of people think that the movie Sideways dealt merlot a serious (and somewhat unjust) blow, but merlot is still a very popular wine in the U.S.; merlot will abide – it will endure. Cabernet franc, however, has a real bone to pick with the filmmakers. Only a relative handful of American winemakers actually attempt to make this varietal on a regular basis, and Miles’s frank (zing!) summation of his distaste for cab franc in the film certainly did nothing to boost its profile. The inclusion of the Cheval Blanc at the end of the film was certainly meant to be an inside joke to those who know better, but the actual outcome of the film was a net negative for a very fine grape. Cab franc was already struggling to keep its head above water; why throw it an anvil on top of that?

Part of the struggle that cab franc has endured may stem from the somewhat rigid climate it requires in order to really thrive. While it needs heat to fully ripen and preclude weedy, overly vegetal characteristics, too much sun and exposure will roast the grape and rob it of its pungent, zingy pleasure. And in regions of the U.S. that fit this particular environmental regimen, winemakers have more often than not planted varieties that have more established bases of popularity, such as pinot noir, chardonnay, or riesling.

Besides its supporters in the Loire and in spots throughout Bordeaux, there are a few other bastions of cab franc tradition. There are some cabernet francs made in the U.S. that earn high marks – Pride and Lang & Reed come immediately to mind. There are cab franc blends popping up here and there in Italy, either with corvina or other native Italian grapes. And while I generally think that the “internationalization” of wine has led to more wines tasting the same, I wouldn’t be devastated if it also led to more producers seeing what they can do with this unassuming, yet malleable and potent grape.

If you are interested in reading more about Loire reds, please check out Brooklynguy’s post about said wines, which puts it much better than I ever could. Brooklynguy, by the way, beat me to the idea of writing about these type of wines, forcing me to change up my style just to fit in. In the meantime, I wanted to do something to point out some of the better cab franc efforts out there, so I’ve decided to install a new feature that I hope to make permanent, but for the moment can only proffer semi-transiency to: The Cab Franc of the Week, which I will use to showcase a cab franc bottling of particular note. Of course, given my usual price range, the vast majority of these wines will be under $20 at retail, but luckily most cab francs fall under that range anyway (at least the European ones). And so without further ado, the Cab Franc of the Week for this February the 26th is:

2005 Charles Joguet Chinon “Les Petites Roches”

joguet

Joguet has been around long enough (four decades) to pick up some pretty positive press for their wines from the Loire. The only red grape he uses is cabernet franc, and his wines are generally built to age longer than most cab francs.

The Petites Roches bottling is a relatively new one to the Joguet lineup, but it certainly doesn’t act like a young wine – this is thick, dry stuff, balanced with fruit but steeled by a thick backbone of tannins that will take at least a couple years to soften. The nose was very nice, draped with black currant and bell pepper. The wine expanded on the palate, pushing the tannins and the herbs but never in a way that felt astringent. There was enough dark fruit to keep some of the strength in check, but if you find a bottle of this and take it home, try not to touch it for a while; I think you’ll be greatly rewarded.

February 27, 2007. Cab Franc of the Week, Wine Talk. Leave a comment.

New fixation.

So I’ve been watching a lot of Wine Library TV recently. A little too much, maybe. But I tell you, once you’ve gotten to the point where you are disagreeing on the particulars rather than the parameters of each specific wine that is tasted, you know that you’re dealing with someone who is dealing with wine on the same level that you are. And that’s a good thing.

For those who haven’t been exposed to WLTV, it’s a video blog run by Wine Library, a wine store in New Jersey, and hosted by the store’s director of operations, Gary Vaynerchuk. Each weekday, he sits down with a few wines, tastes them on camera, and gives his honest opinion on their worth, usually ending with a traditional score on the 100-point scale.

It doesn’t sound like much, and if you watch an episode at random, you may not walk away impressed. But Vaynerchuk has a strangely fascinating appeal on camera – very ebullient, quick-witted, and extremely candid. Rather than using his forum to shill for his company, he really tells you what he thinks – if it’s plonk, he says so. And frankly, my favorite moments of the show are almost never the actual tastings, but rather the small moments of humanity that pop up – the playoff beard for the Jets during the NFL playoffs,  the odd response to a comment in the Wine Library forums, etc. It’s fun to see someone who is clearly as comfortable in front of the camera as Vaynerchuk. Like Eric Asimov, I’m occasionally left wondering where he pulls his incredibly varied and nuanced list of aromatics from when describing how a certain wine smells, but I respect his palate and his taste, so who cares?

It’s also exciting to see food and wine blogging starting to branch out a little. As the internet takes its first dive into the Youtube era, we’ve really started to see a change in the way that the web affects the world – now there’s video if everything, and you can see it right now if you want to. While the implications are sometimes scary, the power and democracy of it all is pretty awesome. So I’m very happy to see some wine love in this video wave – especially to see it thrive like Wine Library TV has. If I had any equipment at all, I’d love to contribute to the vlog world, but I guess I’ll have to leave that to the professionals. In the meantime, I’ll keep browsing the WLTV archives, looking for great wines (or duds) that I’ve had or wines that I’ve been waiting to try. Check one out if you can – good times for all.

February 26, 2007. Wine Talk. Leave a comment.

Insert obscene Sopranos quote here.

bechamel

Bechamel.

basil

Basil.

sausage

Sausage. (This is why you do not see pictures of the tomato sauce or ziti. Also, it is why you do not see more pictures in general. I am not very good at food photography.)

ziti

Baked ziti. One of life’s great pleasures, both to make and to consume. There are many components of the baked ziti, which makes a chef a bit of a traffic manager as it comes together. But the end result, if overseen correctly, is almost always worth it. This batch was good, but not my best. I think that the fresh mozzarella I used was not quite up to snuff – I should have made a trip to the Cheese Store of Silverlake. Ditto the sausage. Also, using lactose-free milk instead of whole milk in the bechamel probably had an effect, although I don’t know how much of one. Nonetheless, I was satisfied.

Whenever I make something relatively complicated like ziti, I am compelled to break out something from the wine closet. Since we only had one sangiovese-based wine in there at present, we opened our 2005 Avignonesi Vino Nobile de Montepulciano. Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, by the way, is an oddly named wine, since it doesn’t involve the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape at all; instead it’s made from the sangiovese grape in Montepulciano. This, to me, would be like making a wine from syrah grapes in Napa and calling it “Napa Pinot Noir,” but whatever. The wine was very nice – a perfume of raspberries, lavender, and cedar, and a plush mouthfeel with some dark chocolate, a floral component, and the Suckling magnet, crushed berries – but I think I liked the Il Lastro Chianti Rufina from last night’s meal at Briganti a little more. The Il Lastro seemed like a more pure expression of the sangiovese grape, and it had more structure as well. The Avignonesi was cheaper, however, so that’s a factor, too. It’s tough to find good sangiovese wines for less than $20, so this might be a repeat buy if I can find another bottle.

One more quick note before I go – the New York Times has an article up about looking for the perfect Italian red sauce. It’s interesting, and certainly contains echoes of feelings and thoughts I have had about trying to interpret and/or mimic the sauces and dishes I’ve had in the homes of my Italian relatives. That said, I’ve never understood the purpose of putting fully cooked meatballs in a vat of tomato sauce. When you do this, you let that wonderful brown, crispy crust on the meatball – one of the meatball’s most winning characteristics – get all soggy with sauce.

I understand that people want their tomato sauce to have that meaty richness to it – that’s why you warm up the sauce in the same pan that you cooked the meatballs in (after deglazing it). Always throw the meatballs into the pot with the spaghetti and sauce when you’re in the last stage of cooking the pasta, after it’s been drained pre-al dente. That way, the meatballs aren’t completely dry, but they aren’t given the chance to go limp on you, either.

I suppose I shouldn’t quibble. The world’s army of Italian grandmothers could probably fill a thousand cookbooks with what I do wrong in my ziti recipe. And frankly, meatballs never go in the spaghetti in Italy – this is an American tradition.But I’m not really looking to cook like an authentic Italian, because I’m not. Meatballs in the same dish as the spaghetti is fine, as long as they have that crust. The ingredients to make great meatballs can and will vary according to what’s on hand and what’s fresh, but day-old bread or fresh bread crumbs are a must. If you want a great resource on making meatballs, though, I would first consult Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking. No Giada for me, thanks.

February 22, 2007. Food Talk, Wine Talk. Leave a comment.

My voyage to Briganti.

Jonathan Gold, the esteemed gourmand of the LA Weekly, has recently published his list of the top 20 Italian restaurants in the Los Angeles area. It is a list that I can’t really speak to the accuracy of, since I have only been to a less than a handful of the places mentioned: Angelini Osteria, Casa Bianca…that’s it. Not even Mozza yet! And to think I call this an LA food blog (well, half a food blog, anyway). How mortifying. It did make me a little sad, however, that he didn’t make space for the small osteria that I’ve been to half a dozen times, the place that for what it lacks in polish, size, and any semblance of a wine list makes up in idiosyncracy, oversized Sophia Loren posters, and the perfect northern Italian carbonara sauce. Namely, La Buca.

I suppose that La Buca can’t really hold much of a (Roman) candle to the high-octane Italian meccas that Gold waxes symphonic over: Valentino, La Terza, Vincenti, Drago. These are serious restaurants with serious goals, serious wine lists, and serious checks at the end of the evening that lead to serious discussions about fiscal responsibility, debt, and the necessity of eating Chex out of the box at Von’s at 2 in the morning while the stockers are refilling paper towels two aisles over.

La Buca and the new restaurant from the same owner, Briganti, are birds of a different feather. La Buca currently occupies a very small space on Melrose in the middle of Hollywood. (There is an expansion in the works that will probably take effect now any day, but as far as I know it’s still in its original space.) It features pastas and pizzas mostly in the $12-15 range, and entrees in the $16-25 range. The pizzas are very nice, but the keys here are the carbonara – made with egg yolks, not cream, in the northern style – and the gnocchi.

Gnocchi are something that I am particularly picky about, because one of the greatest meals of my life was a bowl of gnocchi I had fourteen years ago in a cramped trattoria in Lucca, made by a woman who was not unlike my own Sicilian great-grandmother, and I have spent the remaining years searching in vain for its equal. I’m certainly not saying that La Buca makes gnocchi as good as the ones I had in Lucca – but for less than $15, they are really quite good: pillowy, as you’ll often see gnocchi referred to, but still containing a richness that coats the mouth. That’s the real key to great gnocchi: richness without heaviness. Not unlike wine in that regard. How interesting. Anyway, La Buca does many things well, if on a modest scale, and if you live anywhere near Hollywood it’s well worth inquiring after one of their scant tables for the chance to be lectured on the true meaning of carbonara or the virtue of arugula pesto.

With a trail of happy evenings at La Buca behind us, and finding ourselves in Pasadena recently, we decided to give La Buca’s newly birthed sibling, Briganti, a spin. Briganti is on Mission Street in South Pasadena, only a few blocks away from the admirable wine shop, Mission Wines. The restaurant presents itself as a very different beast than La Buca; the dim lighting and rattling aluminum furniture are replaced with more traditional dining sights – lots of white, classy muted lighting, and space. Quite a bit of space. Well, at least you won’t get your arm bumped by your neighbor when reaching for the wine. That’s a plus. The menu carries some things over from La Buca, including some of the pizzas and the pasta choices, but no carbonara. Maybe the old lady who cooks most nights at La Buca is the only one with the correct carbonara technique? Who knows. There are a few more meat dishes on this menu, though.

We started off with an appetizer of burrata, oven-roasted tomatoes, and pesto. A dish that really is being served all over LA every second of every day, but there’s no denying that this version did it right: excellent pesto and great tomatoes. Good tomatoes are not normally something you would not see in February, but who am I to complain? They were sweet and had nice texture. For our second course, J had the risotto with mixed vegetables and sausage, while I had the pappardelle with a lamb ragu. I’ve got a bit of a weakness for the lamb ragu, so as soon as I had heard it pronounced as that days’s special, I turned to J and said, “It will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.” Even superseded the gnocchi. Both dishes were very well done, with La Buca’s trademark “hominess” in preparation and presentation. My ragu had chunks of carrot, celery, and other vegetable products that were bigger than the little globules of meat, but it tasted really good. J’s risotto was also nice.

We bought a half bottle of the 1997 Il Lastro Chianti Rufina at the restaurant, and it was a very nice wine – exquisitely perfumed with that sangiovese dust and berry mixture, with good structure on the palate. The acids I think were starting to fade from this one, but it certainly held up to the food. A good find.

The service was generally courteous, quick, and smart, although a lot of this might have had something to do with the fact that we were the only patrons inside for the first 3/4ths of our meal. Still, the friendliness of the waiters and busboys warrants mentioning.

All in all, Briganti was a good night out, and could definitely turn into one of our favorite places when we are both in the Pasadena way. Goldie, you can keep your Drago and your Ago and your Spago…well, maybe not that one. Give that one back. But for bang-for-your-buck Italian, it’s hard to do better than the one-two combo of Briganti and La Buca.

February 21, 2007. Restaurants - Bay Area. Leave a comment.

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