Thursday, February 3, 2011

Piazza by Zucca Ristorante: Finding heart in the heart of Downtown LA

From the outside Zucca Ristorante downtown looks like any generic upscale Italian restaurant. I can see the couples seated at tables by the windows, lavishing attention on each other and the plates of pasta in front of them. Everything and everyone looks impossibly neat and polished, like they are little soldiers lined up in an exact row without any personality or flavor.

The perception of Zucca and Piazza, Zucca’s new casual sister restaurant next door, as generic and without personality doesn’t last long. Within moments of walking into the foyer that adjoins the two spaces, I begin seeing a different story – a story that is, in many ways, dictated by General Manager Richard McDaniel.

He’s present at the host stand when I arrive, dressed in a grey suit layered over a sweater – a casual elegance that is somewhat indicative of the entire restaurant itself. He speaks and moves with authority, greeting everyone who walks through the door with a warmth that makes me wonder if these are his friends – or at the very least, regulars who are there several nights a week to tuck into one of the restaurant’s signature butternut squash dishes.

But he greets me with the same enthusiasm – even before I tell him I’m there for an arranged press dinner to sample Executive Chef Lucio Bedon’s new menu at the Piazza. As I sit at the glossy, expansive bar waiting for my dining companion to arrive, I relish the time to observe him in his element, choreographing the actions taken by his efficient, affable staff with a deft and confident hand. I sip my glass of Prosecco Di Conegliano (all wines by the glass are $2 off during Happy Hour), and feel content to sit and watch. It’s a well-run show, and I’m now anxious to be one of the diners performing in it.

When my dining companion arrives, we are whisked onto the patio of the Piazza under a heat lamp that is comfortably warm on the brisk night. If not for the busy street outside and enclosed setting to keep the Downtown “elements” at bay, I might believe that we actually are in Italy. But there are no real (or even fake) Italian accents here this evening, and the menu of antipasti, salads, pizzettes, panini, and pastas is filled with dishes that have been somewhat influenced by a California sensibility. The wine menu is similarly influenced. There’s a substantial presence of Italian wines of course, but also California wines that include the Patina-produced house wines from the Lodi Valley.

Plates are, for the most part, restrained, content to let the ingredients shine with clear and succinct flavors. An antipasti of fluffy meatballs ($8) bathed in a sweet marinara sauce is a comforting and familiar bowl to share – especially when the chill in the air begins to sharpen. We lap up the sauce with the fluffy folds of fresh bread, and then turn our attention to the salads – the Romana with romaine lettuce, polenta croutons, shaved Parmigano-Reggiano, and lemon anchovy dressing; and the Mele with wild arugula, Fiji apples, gorgonzola, and caramelized pecans (both $7). The minimal application of dressing keeps both crisp and light affairs. They are intrusive, humble plates, but have a simple refinement that is indicative of our surroundings.

The $9 pizzettes are prepared in the traditional Neapolitan-style. The crusts are thin and crisp around the edges, and toppings are not overly aggressive. While our waiter professes allegiance to the more heartily-topped Calabrese pie with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, sausage, red onions, and red chili flakes, the Zucca pizza is the one that is most intriguing to my palate. I love how the restaurant uses the sweet butternut squash puree as a sauce and base for the other toppings – goat cheese, caramelized onion and lean strips of jerky-like speck ham. It’s the perfect collusion of sweet and savory, and I find it hard to leave the last slice of pizza untouched.

I find similar difficulty with dessert. While my companion and I originally opted to share a piece of the coffee-rich tiramisu, when McDaniels walks by to check back on us, he insists we also sample the panna cotta as well. I’ve never had much of a fondness for what I’ve always viewed as a bland, ho-hum dessert, but Zucca’s version defies all my expectations. My spoon folds through the berry-drenched dome like it’s cutting through a scoop of the creamiest ice cream imaginable. I’m smitten at first bite.

Piazza, and by extension, Zucca, are not the restaurants they seem to be from a quick glance over the menus, or a quick glance at the spaces from a window outside. Zucca is the restaurant that welcomes souls home for a special dinner when spaghetti with marinara just won’t do, and the Piazza is the comfortable evening slipper for a casual bite under the stars. While they are different on paper, both spaces share the same character and heart – leant to them by the charming personality of the General Manager.

Piazza by Zucca
801 South Figueroa Street
Los Angeles, CA 90017
(213) 614-7800


Esi said...

Kind of wish I tried the Zucca pizza. I still think about that panna cotta. I want to make it, but it probably wouldn't be as good.

weezermonkey said...

Has Zucca improved over the years?

It was...not my favorite when I used to work right across the street. :P

Diana said...

Esi - It was really good! I actually started looking up recipes for panna cotta as soon as I got home. It doesn't seem too hard actually! Maybe we should try it?

Weez - I think that for the price point, the pizzas at Piazza are quite nice.