Los Angeles, California
Osteria Mozza, the Italian love child of chefs Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich with Executive Chef Matt Molina at the helm, opened in 2007 and impressed the Michelin people enough to be given one star. Since I’m a big fan of the Michelin rating system (while others despise it), I figured it would be worthy of a visit particularly since we would be visiting Los Angeles during Christmas break. Our first mistake that evening was to walk into Osteria Mozza’s sibling restaurant (Pizzeria Mozza) before being told we needed to go next door. Since Pizzeria Mozza was packed with a line of people clamoring for a table, I’m glad we were eating next door; Osteria Mozza is a much prettier room with a lot more space to enjoy dinner. For a Wednesday night in L.A., the restaurant seemed unusually crowded. We arrived a tad early and had a chance to have a drink at the bar where wine is not offered by the glass but by the quarto (a small container yielding 250 ml of liquid or just sly of two pours) with a price tag that rivals some of the prices for entire bottles. After a 15 minute wait, we were led to a side room off the main dining area which made me feel as if we were being banned to Siberia. While feeling a bit left out from the “action” in the main room, our table had the distinct advantage of letting us have a dinner conversation without yelling at each other. (Yes, the main room is that loud.)
We were handed menus and then given a choice of wheat, white or multi-grain bread. An amuse bouche of a smidgen of mozzarella on crostini was offered followed by the attentions of a very friendly sommelier. Since I told him we would be doing many courses, three-quarters of them on the heavy side, my inclinations were leaning towards an “old school” Chianti or a Valpolicella. The exclusively Italian wine list (broken down by region) tends to be high end but if you read carefully, wines under $50 a bottle can be found. Since I was steered towards a Chianti that was actually $5 less than my original choice, I thought we were off to a good start. The vibe was right, the service attentive and so what if we had been banished to the back room?
Osteria Mozza has a large menu composed of antipasti, items from the mozzarella bar (more on this later), first (primi) and second (secondi) plates. My dates for the evening (daughter Rachel and her father’s brother) and I split a generous portion of prosciutto di Parma that literally melted in our mouths it was so soft with just a hint of saltiness. Next up: grilled octopus plated with fennel, slices of baby potatoes and celery in a lemon vinaigrette.
Our waiter, an older gentleman, was quick to bring extra plates and eager to answer any questions. I was fascinated by the mozzarella bar concept. There were so many different kinds of mozzarella to choose from, it almost made it difficult to order. Since Rachel could eat three plates of prosciutto in one sitting and probably ask for a fourth, it seemed only natural that the first mozzarella we ordered was accompanied by yet another round of the aforementioned melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto. Besides that dish we ordered burrata, a mozzarella and cream treat with sautéed leeks and topped with toasted breadcrumbs with a hint of lemon. The third form of mozzarella, burricotta (think creamy ricotta encased in fresh mozzarella) was served on top of crostini sprinkled with honey and chili-spiced walnuts. Unfortunately, it also had a tad too much fresh rosemary for my palate.
Pastas were next. I haven’t met a linguine with clam sauce I didn’t like…until that night. Osteria Mozza’s linguine were a tad undercooked to my liking. When the dish you order is too al dente, I felt with the amount of chewing I was doing, my mouth was getting a workout. (Your jaw should not be aching eating pasta.) While the clams were good, the amount of chilis in the dish were way out of proportion to the helping. So much so that after the first few bites, I actually lost my taste buds. My mouth was on fire and while I willed myself to taste the pasta and the clams, it just wasn’t going to happen. What troubled me was that if the dish had been cooked a tad longer and without so much heat, I knew it would have been decent. The two other pasta dishes we tried included hand cut noodles with a while boar ragu that was good but not particularly overwhelming and the tortellini e brodo. Osteria Mozza’s version of tortellini e brodo involves a soup bowl holding the tortellini while a small teapot filled with broth is poured over them tableside. When our waiter inquired about our pasta dishes, I was frank. He seemed genuinely surprised which led me to think no one ever complained or no one had ordered the clam sauce that evening since I couldn’t imagine I was the only person in the room who found it way too spicy.
We moved on. Rachel had the roasted duck which was plated on a wooden board with a spicy mustard seed and pear marmalade which came with a side order of roasted brussel sprouts with balsamic vinegar. Other dishes included slices of grilled beef with arugula salad and generous slices of parmesan. The beef while expertly cooked was a bit overpowered by a heavy, almost coffee-like flavored sauce. The winning dish that evening? Thin slices of lamb nestled on top of tiny tomatoes, faro and topped with a Greek yogurt sauce. The perfectly pink lamb was done to my liking and I thought the dish was not only beautifully composed but absolutely delicious. After all these courses, we were actually getting full. But not before we perused the dessert menu which I found to be heavy on a selection of cakes (wasn’t this L.A. where everyone is supposedly on a diet?) Since Rachel and I were still rebounding from Christmas cookie overload back home, the three of us decided to split a plate of cannolis stuffed with homemade vanilla, espresso and pistachio ice cream.
I did find it somewhat ironic that night that the weakest link in the menu line-up were the pasta dishes especially since properly prepared pasta is the heart and soul of Italian cooking. But let me get back to why I think Osteria Mozza is the love child of these four very talented chefs. Ultimately, when people love something (or each other) that much, they create something bigger (and hopefully ultimately better) than themselves. The serene atmosphere and overall high level of magic coming out of the kitchen brings a little bit of Italy (namely ingredients and flavor) plus a bit of New York (execution and technique) to this very popular L.A. spot.
On the way out, our waiter stopped to ask me if we’d be back. Asking, I have to presume because of my prior conversation with him regarding the pasta portion of the dinner. ” When I’m back in LA?” I asked. Absolutely. I’d just skip the macaroni and order more prosciutto and belly-up to the mozzarella bar.