Where to start, where to start. Let’s try to start at the beginning, although it feels like a formidable task. Last weekend, Amir and I were invited to taste and sip the wares of several Italian restaurants and eateries here in Los Angeles under the guided hand of our friends at Bertolli. We are never ones to pass up a food experience, especially one that will open our eyes yet again to another undiscovered side of Los Angeles. This is truly a rich food city, and we confirm that fact almost every day. The itinerary would include visits to Café Bella Roma, Obika Mozzarella Bar, Primi al Mercato, Norcino Salumeria, Café Bellagio and Osteria Mamma–each one offering its own specialty that would be authentic, traditional and delicious. With eager appetites and loose fitting pants, we made our way over to the first location where we would meet the other bloggers who would accompany us.
The first location was Café Bella Roma. Jackie and Emily from Bertolli were the first to greet each blogger as they arrived. They handed over the signature oversized, red envelopes complete with a complete itinerary, information about Bertolli and tasting certificates for us to give even more of their product line a try. We settled into the table with Sharon of Cupcakes and Cutlery, Andrea of Savvy Sassy Moms, Melanie from Travels With Two and her husband Adam, Romy of Romy Raves and Stacie of Splash Productions who is a master sommelier and contributes the wine report to KCRW’s “Good Food”. This was the first time we were meeting a crowd of bloggers who were not specifically focused on food, which was a great twist! Bella Roma is small on the inside, but full of warmth. They offer a range of Roman cuisine, including salumi, antipasti and pastries. As we sipped cappuccinos and machiatti, plates of cornetti were brought to the table. Have you ever had a cornetti? If not, run out and find one. Imagine a French croissant, and then put a big ‘X’ through it because we are on a trip to Italy–not France! Chef and owner Roberto Amico hails from Rome, and he made sure we were very clear about that. All jokes aside, cornetti do look similar to croissants, but the big difference is that they are made of butter and shortening. Some are filled with a thick, sweet custard, while the others are left plain. They are all dusted with a light shower of powdered sugar. The cornetti were warm and fresh. Paired with our shots of caffeine, we were off to a good start.
Feeling a burst of infectious energy–fueled by a combination of espresso, sugar and excitement for more–we all piled into the communal car that would zip us through the city. If you are familiar with Los Angeles, then you know it is not so easy to zip anywhere in this town, but we did what we could. The next stop of Obika Mozzarella Bar in the Century City Mall. Maybe you’re confused again. Obika is surely a word of Japanese origin. It means “Look at it! Here it is!”. The fusion comes from the fact that this is a mozzarella bar that feels like a sushi bar, but do not ask for a California Roll please. Executive Chef Simone Santopietro, originally from Milan, passionately greeted us at the door, passionately served us burrata, classica and affumicata (smoked mozzarella) and passionately preached about the values of farmers markets, California’s great produce and the differences in Italy’s regional cheeses and meats. The key word is passionately. Chef Santopietro is an informational and engaging gem. So full of interest and enthusiasm about his art that you feel like he’s going to burst. His blue eyes sparkled as he waxed poetically about the restaurant importing its Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP three times a week, the twenty-two worldwide locations of Obika and why you should not eat your mozzarella with balsamic vinegar. He also informed us that none of their restaurants use garlic in the food! When you think Itailan, you think garlic, but no, not here. He wants the food to scream about its own properties, not the influence of garlic. Listening to him was a treat as we sliced our way through mozzarella, salad, bruschetta and mini tiramisus.
By now, it was early afternoon, and I’m sure many of us were feeling our belts tighten around the waist. But we were charged with the task of experiencing authentic Italian food, and we were not about to fail this challenge. We all piled into the car and made our way to Santa Monica Place and The Market located on the third level. It was our first time checking out the new mall near the Santa Monica Promenade following its completion, and it’s obvious that there are notable spots tucked into this building. We watched Chef Fernando Il Primi al Mercato make not one, not two, but three different pastas in three different colors. There was ricotta gnocchi, spinach cavatelli and beet tortellini. It happened so fast, it was hard to believe that each pasta was homemade by Chef Fernando (well, Amir did shape one of the gnocchi) right before our eyes. There it was! Or maybe we should’ve shouted “Obika!”. When they are making pasta for diners, the dough makes its way through bronze dies that give each piece a rough texture once dried. This unique texture helps the sauce stick to the pasta. Every single different shape of pasta holds sauce in a different way, so it is something to keep in mind when you are deciding if a twirly, curved, thin cylinder or long and flat noodle will with with that favorite creamy or tomato-based sauce or just plain ‘ol olive oil.
Owner Piero Selvaggio, the famed restauranteur behind the flagship Valentino and The Valentino Restaurant Group, greeted us and walked the group over the restaurant where we sat down to red or white wine paired with three different pasta dishes: gnocchi with lamb ragu, squid ink garganelli seafood and mint pesto and Tuscan pici with fava, pancetta, peperoncini and pecorino cheese. Which was the best? Well, hands down, the Tuscan pici won the award for il piatto perfetto. It was slightly spicy with the perfect salty quality you crave from pancetta and pecorino, plus, the long noodles were fun to slurp up Lady and The Tramp style. That doesn’t sound very sexy, but all you need to know is that it was memorable for the taste buds.
We were full yet? Of course. But was there more to eat? For sure. A quick trip less than 100 feet away led us to Piero’s cheese and meat shop across from the restaurant, Norcino Salumeria. Many people were looking forward to more cheese and of course more wine. We sipped on prosecco and Lambrusco, the latter provided due to Stacie’s firm and naturally spot on affirmation of the sparkling red wine’s ability to pair well with cheese. We nibbled on proscuitto and speck, red, green and black olives, cheese and an outstanding red pepper chutney that could convince you to do bad things for a second sample. Amir was nice and simply asked if he could have more, and the restaurant packed up a cute little to-go batch for him. We all received boxes of freshly made, tri-color pasta too. A quick boil in water would bring to life another taste of homemade. Piero was sweet enough to insist we take his email and keep in touch, which of course we all did. Imagine these words coming from a man who moved from Sicily to New York and would eventually become a highly successful restauranteurs in the world! Of course, we had to snap a picture with the crew who was so accommodating for our group. Bravo!
You may be wondering how we were still standing at this point. The reason for our ability to maintain upright was the promise of gelato. It was time for Café Bellagio to dish out its sweet, creamy treats. We met Marco who moved from Milan to Los Angeles and brought the traditional Italian dessert with him. He explained how gelato contains a higher quantity of whole milk to heavy cream, so it has less fat than ice cream. Gelato is churned at a slower speed than ice cream, so it contains less air, which contributes to its characteristic thick, dense texture. Marco’s favorite flavor is vanilla, so we had an entire batch made for our group. He also had strawberry whipped up using berries from the local Santa Monica farmers market. Because gelato has less fat than regular ice cream, there was no guilt as we double fisted our way to dessert town. Just as Marco said, out of the two, vanilla was the best. If you were creative like me, you would probably put a tiny bit of both on one spoonful, but that’s probably gelato blasphemy. Don’t tell a soul.
Back into the car our Bertolli friends instructed! And so back into the car we went. It was time for dinner. We had eaten all day, even full meals, and yet, it was now time for the main meal. Mangia! We made it to Osteria Mamma around 5:00 pm, and the restaurant was all our’s. Filippo Cortivo, the son of the restaurant namesake–Mamma–met us with hugs and smiles. We were ushered to our seat and served sparkling or flat water…and more wine. As we rested, Filippo let us know that his family hailed from Padua, Italy, and this restaurant was truly a family affair. His mother was in the kitchen, and his wife and sister worked the floor. The servers were Italian, the food was authentic to the country. Everything was based on maintaining homestyle practices and homestyle menus. The food served on these tables would be indicative of the food his mother would’ve served at home. I think everyone felt warm and gushy inside at this point. Then he pointed to all of the photos on the wall behind us–photos of him, his father, his sister and his glorious Mamma. Let’s take a timeout from the food talk and just say that Mamma is and most definitely was a hot mama! Looking at her photos on the wall made you want to get a blowout and gaze seductively into the eyes of someone you’d like to seduce. But there was no time for that. It was time to eat.
Our menu included a plate of fresh figs, proscuitto and a mix of herbed butter and mascarpone bruschetta followed by cucumber wrapped scallops on a bed of frisée and oranges. That was enough to wow us. But there was more. Next up, we had a plate of fried sardines buried under thinly sliced, frangrant onions and plumped raisins. I can only speak for the Duo when I say that it was the first time slicing into fresh sardines. Amir does not have much fear, so he gorged on two before I even had time to scrape the meat off of half of my first fish. You have to be a trooper to eat fish bones, no matter how small they may be, and I guess I’m not a trooper. After one or two boohoos, our plates were cleared, wine glasses refilled, and we hopped into the main course. Half of the plate housed fig and gorgonzola risotto, while the other half was gnocchi with porcini mushrooms. Everybody take a minute to think about what we’re saying. We’re saying we had some amazing options here. The risotto was outstanding and definitely our first time experiencing this type of sweet and salty combination with rice. It was the gnocchi that probably stole the show. They were similar to bite-sized pockets of down feathers–so soft that they melted like cotton candy on your tongue. No one was disappointed. We were surely not disappointed when gargantuan slices of tiramisu were placed before us, along with glasses of sparkling moscato that can only be imported from Padua. This was the evening’s icing on the cake. It was also our second time having a tiramisu without the usual sweet marsala wine used to soak the lady finger biscuits. Apparently Americans don’t like it, so many Italian restaurants will omit that ingredient to appease the customers. We don’t mind the marsala one bit, but whether it’s there or not, as long as the tiramisu passes the test, we’re fine. This one passed every single test, and it may even have earned extra credit. It was a win.
The dinner came to an end, and the group was a mix of half comatose bloggers staring into space (that could have been us) and a few chattering people buzzed from the day’s adventure. This has been a day to remember, not only because of the food, but because of each and every owner’s and chef’s passion about their product. We were reminded that family and food traditions are at the heart of Italian food, eating is a community experience and each meal should be important and special. Each of these points live at the heart of Bertolli’s message. Would Francesco Bertolli have ever imagined that his first store in Lucca, Italy in 1865 would lead to bloggers in little ‘ol Los Angeles experiencing the types of authentic products he sold in his tiny store? That’s how legendary stories work. We are lucky to have worked with Bertolli in several ways prior to this, and we are lucky to have been asked along for this most recent Italian culinary ride through our city. We don’t take any of these opportunities for granted. There is no way we could share each and every photo with you in this post, so check out the rest of them in this Facebook album. Until the next time, ciao amici!
Bertolli provided complimentary menu tastings at each restaurant. The opinions expressed here are our own.