Locanda del Lago

Locanda del Lago's pizza margherita fresca

Crusty companion: Pizza margherita fresca

Cabbage patch: pizzocheri alla Valtellinese

Cabbage patch: Pizzocheri alla Valtellinese

Say cheese plate: (From left) Taleggio, Pecorino Toscano, and Montasio

Say cheese plate: (From left) Taleggio, Pecorino Toscano, and Montasio

Yet another good, authentic Italian restaurant to add to our burgeoning list, Locanda del Lago (231 Arizona Ave.) is an island of relative tranquillity amid the hubbub of Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, which these days is swelling with Italian tourists looking for—you guessed it—Italian food. (Would it kill them to try something new?) Differently from Pecorino and Da Pasquale (see reviews June 11 and June 16), Locanda offers dishes from Italy’s north, specifically Lombardy, whose fare tends to be meatier and cheesier than its southern counterparts. On this visit, we knew we wanted to try the pizza, which we had repeatedly spotted and longed for as we passed by the outdoor tables on our way to other destinations. Like other memorable pizzas we have had lately, Locanda’s boasts a thin, crisp crust, but unlike the others, it has a solid layer of mozzarella and chopped Roma tomatoes instead of a red sauce, like an ultra-refined prototype of a New York-style pie. The result tastes as great as it looks. Our other main dish was pizzocheri alla Valtellinese, featuring hearty buckwheat pappardelle tossed in a surprisingly delicate buttery sauce of garlic, Savoy cabbage, Yukon potatoes, Bitto cheese (a specialty of the region), and sage leaves. For dessert we started with a divinely dense and creamy semifreddo bursting with pistachio flavor and encircled by a ring of sweet, fruity compote. Eager for more, we assembled a plate pairing savory cheeses with complementary sweets. These included mild Montasio with bing cherry marmalade; ripe, soft Taleggio with mostarda di Cremona, a candied, subtly mustardy fruit preparation; Pecorino Toscano with a salty, pungent dipping sauce of cannellini beans and shallots in extra-virgin olive oil; and, as a bonus, a wine-poached pear in truffle-infused honey (not to mention a tasty heap of toasted walnuts and basket of bread to mop it all up). Though Locanda del Lago does not match the homey, family-run feel of our sentimental favorites, the food and service were first-rate. Even the Italian tourists seemed to agree.

Sor Tino

Since Pecorino was closed for the Fourth of July, we decided to try Sor Tino (908 Barrington Ave., at San Vicente), located in the same stretch of Brentwood. For our appetizers, we and our guest chose bietole e caprino, a pleasant combination of sweet, earthy red and yellow beets, candied walnuts, greens, and goat cheese in a light dressing; polenta grigliata e porcini, a crisp, golden, slightly unctuous square of the grilled cornmeal porridge topped with the gelatinous but coveted mushrooms, in this case sautéed and peppery; and frisée with slivered fava beans, bits of artichoke heart, goat cheese, and sweet cherry tomatoes, all in a subtly lemony, barely-there dressing, which could have used a bit more punch. For our entrées, two of us were grabbed by tagliatelle carciofi, a simple but appealing preparation of the egg pasta with slivers and chunks of lemony artichoke in a light white sauce of olive oil, Parmesan, and butter. The third member of our party ordered risotto funghi, which he found to be an adequate rendition of the classic rice dish, perhaps a tad mushy, but subtly flavorful and not too cheesy, with the right amount of porcini mushrooms. As usual (at least in Italian restaurants), we loved the dessert, a tender-crusted tart filled with a ground-up mixture of chocolate and hazelnuts plated with hazelnut gelato, raspberries, lovely slices of strawberry, and mint leaves, which were not just a decoration but a wonderful accompaniment. Overall, Sor Tino offers solid, though unremarkable food with friendly, helpful service in an attractive environment. If given a choice, we would have opted for Pecorino (see June 11 review), but, in a pinch, Sor Tino served nicely.

Pizza Antica

Roman holiday: Thin-crust margherita

Roman holiday: Thin-crust margherita

Hot potato: The sublime potato pizza

Hot potato: The sublime potato pizza

Seasonal: Vegetable antipasti

Seasonal: Vegetable antipasti

Manifestly fresh: Strawberry-mint (right) and sour cherry

Manifestly fresh: Strawberry-mint (right) and sour cherry

Warm cornmeal shortbread with fresh strawberries and cream

Moist and delicate: Warm corn meal shortbread with fresh strawberries and cream


Pizza Antica is a light, airy eatery on the dining deck of Santa Monica Place, the only mall we actually like.  With its open plan and ocean views, this collection of upscale shops overlooking the Promenade still manages to be democratic; more important for our purposes, it has obvious aspirations to become a foodie destination. Consider, for example, the newly opened Market, chock-full of artisanal vendors, and the half-dozen self-consciously epicurean restaurants, of which Pizza Antica is itself an example. For appetizers, we ordered crispy hearts of artichoke with aioli and lemon, and antipasti of young vegetables. The artichoke pieces, which were breaded and fried, calamari-style, were a bit dry and might have been enhanced by a dash more salt, but dipped in the creamy, garlicky aioli, they were undeniably tasty and gone in an instant. The antipasti dish, on the other hand, was more than just good; it was truly impressive, featuring delectable little heaps of vegetable sides, each better than the next. There were caramelized onions in a balsamic dressing; mushrooms sautéed in a wine sauce; marinated slices of fingerling potatoes; sweet fresh corn; and beautifully roasted red peppers with slivers of garlic that conjured childhood vacations in Sicily. (But see update below.) All of these were served with crunchy focaccia crisps, baked with a hint of Parmesan; more aioli; and the silky house-made mozzarella. For our pizza, we chose a classic margherita, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil. The restaurant identifies its thin-crust oval pies as Roman; since we saw several that looked burned around the edge (intentional charring, our waiter explained), we requested a gentler treatment. The result was a lovely creation with a light and chewy, almost flaky, crust. Though the sauce was slightly sweet, the pie as a whole was excellent. For dessert, we ordered the bittersweet chocolate tart with hazelnuts, whipped cream, and caramel; the chocolate, as it turned out, was more sweet than bittersweet, like a homemade brownie, but the cream was subtly sugared, the caramel judiciously distributed, and the overall effect sophisticated and scrumptious. Finally, we should not fail to mention our drinks, plain lemonade and strawberry mint lemonade, both spritzers made from manifestly fresh ingredients and perfectly balanced between sweet and tart. Notwithstanding the reasonable prices and casual, friendly atmosphere, Pizza Antica proved a rare creature indeed, a mall-based pizza restaurant in which the food is so far from cheesy that it’s positively upper-crusty.

Update: On two later visits (July 25 and August 10), we were, sadly, less thrilled by the antipasti of young vegetables, which included a seasonal substitution of hard peas and red onion (see picture above). Whatever gap this left in our enthusiasm, however, was filled by the heirloom potato pizza, whose tender slivers of purple spuds; caramelized onions; combination of Fontina, Parmesan, and Petit Basque; and sprinkling of truffle oil and chives, all on a garlic-puree base, was a feat of sublime deliciousness that will surely inspire us to return yet again. (For dessert, we recommend the moist, delicate cornmeal shortbread with fresh strawberries and cream, also shown above.)

Capo

Though the vertiginous prices at Capo make this “modern Italian” more suitable for a splurge than an ordinary night out, vegetarian foodies should put it high on their list for a very special evening (in our case, a second anniversary dinner). We may have spent a bundle, but the brilliance and variety of the food, not to mention the ambience of this candlelit cabin steps away from the Santa Monica beach (1810 Ocean Ave., just north of Pico), made us feel that we had gotten the better part of the bargain. The key to this experience is the vegetable tasting menu, an eight-course bonanza that changes along with the rhythms of the farmers’ market. Since there were two of us, and since the kitchen generously provided us with different items in all but two instances, our eight courses stretched into fourteen. Nor were we stuffed at the end of the meal. The portions were all moderate, with an appropriate emphasis on quality rather than quantity. The effect was of a magical mystery tour through the land of vegetables, each course a delightful surprise, each ingredient gently prodded to give its very best performance in a stirring ensemble. The meal began with pillowy ricotta-stuffed ravioli plated in a buttery, slightly garlicky sauce and topped with razor-thin slivers of truffle. For the next course, we were treated to Holland white asparagus in an exquisite butter sauce, and an elegant square of eggplant seated atop a ratatouille-style stew of zucchini and tomato. The asparagus was tender, almost juicy, and yet still held on to a slight, pleasing crunch. The creamy eggplant had a grilled taste; the ratatouille a strong tomato tang. For the third course, we were delighted with two dainty teacups of soup, a cream-topped carrot-ginger, with an initial bite followed by a mellow warmth, and a creamy mushroom made with fresh porcini, earthy and intensely flavorful. The next round riffed on gorgeous heirloom tomatoes: In one dish, they were chopped into a salad with deliciously bitter arugula and plated with creamy, slightly sour fresh buffalo mozzarella; in the other, they were grouped with cauliflower and brussels sprouts in a butter sauce, all revolving around a silky glob of burrata topped with delicate green beans. For the fifth course, there were Lyon artichoke and grilled romaine. The artichoke plate included leaves grilled on a skewer, ready to be dipped in a garlicky aioli, and tender hearts chopped into a green salad with tomato. The grilled romaine, in a kind of reinvented Caesar salad with croutons and a garlicky cream sauce, made us look on this humble green with new eyes. Just when we thought things could not get any better, the sixth course, our entrée, arrived, a creamy, corny, sticky polenta encircled by a colorful array of pan-fried vegetables (cauliflower, red and yellow beets, brussels sprouts, carrot, and leek); meaty, gamey wild mushrooms, including a salty, squid-like clump; and pomodoro sauce, a potent concentration of tomato flavor. Courses seven and eight were dessert, including little cups of ice cream (vanilla and fragrant, nutty pistachio) and sorbet (raspberry and tangerine); rhubarb pie with a tender crust and a scoop of unsweetened whipped cream on the side; a Meyer lemon semifreddo topped with blueberries that burst with fruitiness; and a plate of cookies and chocolates (walnutty chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal, and a crunchy biscotto). We savored every bite of this epic feast, and we eagerly await the next excuse to lighten our wallets at this refined, romantic spot. Our third anniversary won’t come a day too soon.

Antica Pizzeria

Another easy-to-miss foodie find, Antica Pizzeria (13455 Maxella Ave.), which occupies a second-floor corner of a Marina del Rey mall, claims the distinction of certification by the Associazone Vera Pizza Napoletana, a trade group devoted to preserving traditional Neapolitan pizza making. Though of course pizza is this restaurant’s raison d’être, it offers a full menu, with antipasti, soups, salads, and pastas. We started our meal with the very nice insalata mediterranea, featuring mixed greens, black olives, tomato, and goat cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette. For our pizza, we went with the classic, thoroughly authentic margherita D.O.C. (for “denomination of control”), not to be confused with the unmarked, less stringently governed margherita, also on the menu. At its best, the DOC is a lovely-to-behold speckled thin-crust pie topped with a deliciously acidic San Marzano tomato sauce, patches of dense fresh buffalo mozzarella, and basil leaves. Each pie is enough for one hungry person, but we started by ordering just one, which, we were sad to find, was burned on the bottom. Ordering a second pie, we said, “Please make sure this one isn’t burned,” and, sure enough, the next pie was just right, a pizza dream, with its thin but chewy crust and scrumptious toppings. As for our dessert, the coppa profitterol, all we can say is “non l’abbiamo neanche visto” (“We did not even see it”). This cup of vanilla cream-filled pastry balls covered with a dark chocolate custard and whipped cream disappeared in what seemed like seconds. Our final assessment: With the right choices and instructions, one can have a very memorable experience at Antica Pizzeria, though a misstep might lead to disappointment.

Update (August 5): Antica Pizzeria has closed down. Though thin-crust pizza is not hard to find in L.A., this restaurant offered something special, and we are sad to see it go.

Da Pasquale

Miracle of melanzana: Penne alla siciliana

Miracle of melanzana: Penne alla siciliana

Crisp and delicate: Pizza vegetariana

Crisp and delicate: Pizza vegetariana

Bean encounter: Insalata di fagioli bianchi

Cannellini zone: Insalata di fagioli bianchi

Crunchy and chewy: Pasquale's bread

Extraordinary: Pasquale’s bread

Last night we returned to one of our favorite eateries, Da Pasquale (9749 Little Santa Monica Blvd.), a Beverly Hills trattoria specializing in Neapolitan cuisine. Run by a husband-and-wife team, the restaurant prides itself on the authenticity of its food, offering none of the Americanisms (Parmesan on seafood, chicken on pizza, alfredo sauce) that stir indignation among purists. Because of the southern orientation, a vegetarian can do quite well here. The daily soup is typically bean-based and vegan, a hearty lentil, chickpea, or cannellini preparation bolstered with pasta (the native Italian half of our duo insists the soups are just the way his grandmother from the south used to make them), and the menu offers many other inviting options. There is, for example, a delicious, not-too-heavy vegetarian lasagna with eggplant, spinach, ricotta, béchamel, tomato sauce, and Parmesan, as well as a variety of crisp, delicate pizzas (start with the classic margherita or the vegetariana). Our meal last night began with the cannellini soup and the insalata di fagioli bianchi (cannellini beans, again, marinated in olive oil, garlic, and lemon and served on a bed of arugula with toasted bread). For our entrée, we both chose penne alla siciliana, in which Anna, the indomitable chef, virtually melts eggplant into an incredible tomato sauce with just a little mozzarella (we needed a double portion, since this dish is too good to share). For dessert, we went with another irresistible favorite, coppa amaretto, an unbelievably creamy cup of mascarpone flavored with an almond cookie soaked in amaretto di saronno (an almond liqueur). We would be truly negligent if we failed to mention Pasquale’s extraordinary bread, a puffy circle with a toasty crunch on the outside and a moist, chewy inside, always served hot from the oven and perfect for dipping in extra-virgin olive oil. Don’t let the Beverly Hills address fool you. Da Pasquale has both great food and a casual warmth all but guaranteed to leave you with a smile.

Pecorino

Funky delicious: Fava bean soup

Funky delicious: Fava bean soup

Impossibly light: Fiori di zucchini

Impossibly light: Fiori di zucchini

Tender and earthy: Pecorino's Porcini

Tender and earthy: Pecorino’s porcini

Hearty: Pappardelle al pesto

Hearty: Pappardelle al pesto

Dense and chewy: Cacio e pepe

Dense and chewy: Cacio e pepe

Like marzipan: Chocolate morsels

Like marzipan: Chocolate morsels

My mascarpone: The Tiramisu

My mascarpone: The Tiramisu

The Brentwood Italian Pecorino (11604 San Vicente Blvd.) had caught our eye with its leguminous menu, and it fully lived up to its promise, offering savory authentic dishes. We loved both soups: pasta e ceci (chickpeas seasoned with rosemary and filled out with a home-style egg pasta) and fave e cicoria (pureed fava beans, slightly funky, with pleasingly bitter sautéed chicory on top). For our entrées, we had more beans in our papardelle al pesto, a hearty combination of the broad egg noodles with fava beans, green beans, juicy peas, and the eponymous pecorino; we balanced this with tagliolini al pomodoro, a thin pasta in a tangy red sauce. For dessert, we had millefoglie, strawberry mousse layered between crisp almond wafers, which the native-Italian younger half of our duo said gave him “intense pleasure.” We don’t want to leave out the warm slices of fresh bread served with a garlicky chickpea spread, which kept us happy while we waited for our soup, or the ambience, elegant but still cozy and friendly.

Update: On a second visit (August 4), we adored the tender, earthy porcini; fiori di zucchini, fried zucchini blossoms with an impossibly light, golden coating and a creamy ricotta-basil filling; and cacio e pepe, an intensely peppery, pecorino-flavored pasta, prepared tonight with dense, chewy house-made chitarra spaghetti. We were equally delighted by our new desserts, the creamy tiramisu, garnished with fresh raspberries and a sprig of mint, and the chocolate morsels, textured almost like marzipan, with lovely, unsweetened whipped cream on the side. As for the soul-satisfying fave e cicoria and the papardelle al pesto, these two entrées were just as spectacular as they were the first time. If you’re not careful, your tab at Pecorino may stray into the triple digits for just two people, but, considering that we loved every bite from beginning to end, we left satisfied that we had gotten more than our money’s worth.