Nearly three years ago I enjoyed a transformative meal at Osteria La Buca, a literal hole-in-the-wall rustic Italian eatery on Melrose Ave. that could scarcely seat twenty people. As my new friends and I sipped wine and marveled over the addictive calamari fritto and soft bread with arrabiata sauce, the convivial staff wooed our party of four with personal service that included pronunciation lessons for bruschetta (“brus’ketta”) and gnocchi (“nyo-ke”).
The latter lesson proved to be particularly important for us – we were all immediately smitten with the cloud-like potato dumplings that we each ordered with “Mamma’s” fumé sauce, a tomato cream sauce with bacon, scamorza cheese and oregano. Even before the epic tiramisu arrived at our table with its lofty layers of mascarpone cheese (incidentally, the best version I’ve ever had), we knew we’d be back.
A few months after that meal, Mamma, her son/co-owner Filippo Cortivo and company expanded Osteria La Buca into the space next door and the restaurant nearly quadrupled in size. The new space was chic with a bar area downstairs and a romantic loft upstairs where couples flocked to split thin crust pizzas by the light of the fireplace. It was a beautiful renovation, and upon first walking into the “new” restaurant, I was admittedly in awe of the modernized environs.
My initial awe, however, was soon replaced by disappointment. Service was achingly slow, the prices shot up and the food was inconsistent, often arriving at the table cold and underwhelming. With Osteria Mozza offering better pasta at the same price point a mile closer to my apartment, two years ago I stopped making special trips east of Larchmont for a taste of Mamma’s home cooking. Osteria La Buca seemed to have lost part of its soul in the move.
Then, this past October, Mamma and Filippo parted ways with La Buca. Word on the blogosphere was that Filippo didn’t like the direction the restaurant was headed and wished to go back to the original conception of strict Italian cuisine. It saddened me to think of what had befallen one of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles. Another example of cosmetic surgery gone wrong.
So when I heard Mamma and Filippo were opening a new space near Melrose and Larchmont Avenue in March of this year, I was hopeful that the charming restaurant I fell in love with three years ago would finally be back to its original humble state.
Just two weeks after Osteria Mamma’s soft opening on March 10th, an opportunity arose to check out the new restaurant this past Friday night. A craving for pasta, a willing partner who didn’t mind waiting till 9 pm to eat dinner (I bribed him with a homemade snack) and an adventurous spirit all coalesced to bring us to a tiny window-side table in the corner of what has already become a popular dining destination.
As we sipped from a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon that we’d brought with us (the restaurant doesn’t yet have its liquor license so is currently BYOB), I couldn’t help but form a comparison sheet in my mind.
The bread isn’t the same. I thought with dismay.
The service is still a little slow. I noted when it took a few minutes to get our water glasses.
And the gnocchi is still only available with the boscaiolo cream sauce with green peas, ham, and mushrooms – not with a choice of any of Mamma’s sauces like at the original location.
I even turned a critical eye to the precarious placement and size of our table – isolated in the nook of a window and barely large enough for both our legs to fit underneath. While our legs are lengthier than the average Los Angelino (even those that have the assistance of lifts/heels), I couldn’t help but wonder if, like before, my initial excitement would be replaced by disappointment.
Was the soul of Osteria La Buca lost forever?
But then the food started to arrive.
The polippolata salad with grilled octopus, fresh celery, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, lemon and olive oil ($9.25) – a new addition to the menu that while not as transcendent as Osteria Mozza’s version, proves to be respectable in its own right. The bites of octopus are so tender they are almost interchangeable with the chunks of potato, and the celery, spinach and lemon lend a lightness to the starter that makes it the ideal precursor to the main event -- the pasta.
While I was tempted to order the gnocchi ($14.75) that started my love affair with La Buca, or the Arianna pizza (formerly known as the Jijo) with mozzarella, speck, walnuts and truffle oil (also $14.75) that nurtured it, ultimately, I ended up trying something I’d never had before – the Trenette Nere alla Bottarga ($17.95). The steaming bowl of homemade squid ink linguini luxuriously bathed in an earthy olive oil and topped with cherry tomatoes and five girthy shrimp reminded me of how I felt when I had my first bite of Mamma’s gnocchi years ago.
The al dente noodles infused my mouth with a subtle kiss of brininess that was further accentuated by the crisp bites of plump shrimp. I wanted to marry the flavors and textures onto my tongue forever and was surprised when my fork collided with the bottom of the empty bowl. I hadn’t planned on eating the whole thing.
Osteria Mamma isn’t the same as the 20-person space that charmed my friends and me in 2007. And it’s not the same as the 60+ person space that drove me into Nancy Silverton’s waiting arms two years ago. It’s its own animal featuring aspects of both restaurants, the most important of which remains intact. The magic of Mamma’s cooking has not been lost on the drive west on Melrose. It is there on every tabletop – even the precarious one sitting alone in the corner.
5730 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90004