The very start of my dinner at Cecconi’s is indicative of how everything went: The restaurant had absolutely no record of my reservation, not searching under my last name – even trying various misspellings – or my first. It was suggested I wait at the bar and return in ten or fifteen minutes – I arrived early – and come back to see what could be done. The bar, right inside the door, was a mob scene, like what one would find in Hollywood around eleven on a Friday night. But this was the sleepy commercial elbow of Los Angeles/West Hollywood at eight on a Thursday.
I told the hostesses the bar was impenetrable, stating my inclination to wait right at their station rather than get lost in the sea of chattering party people who had come to have a liquid dinner. I was seated immediately. In a doorway. Right next to the bar.
So, on the plus side, my issue was resolved quickly and with a pleasant demeanor. On the minus side is the fact that I had an issue at all, and the resolution was less that satisfying. Welcome to Cecconi’s.
Cecconi’s is not a restaurant for people who love food. The fact that so many people had come to Cecconi’s not to eat should attest to that. The bar at the heart of the restaurant was swarming with the young and trendy as they nursed glasses of wine in clusters, some of them waiting an hour or so for a table, and many more of them just there to drink, apparently. The volume of the restaurant, with what seems to be an entire quarry’s worth of marble inside, was frighteningly loud; Mozza seems like a hushed lending library in comparison. The room seemed small and claustrophobic with the great crush of people at the center, too. Tables are placed in doorjambs between the terrace and the interior, and our seats originally had our backs to the aisle before the manager who waited on us most of the evening repositioned us (and the table beside us) from the traffic.
Again, the mixed nature of Cecconi’s came into play with the service. We had a waiter, but in the nearly three hours we were there, we only saw him three times. When a table was reset behind us, a wine glass hit the floor. When a wine glass hits a marble floor, the effect is something like a hand grenade: My friend had a shard of glass in the neck of her sweater. Fortunately, she was not cut, but there was still broken glass beneath our feet when we left. We waited long gaps to get served, dirty cutlery was not immediately changed, bread plates were never brought, and we waited so long for our check, we probably could have just walked out on the bill in the crowd, and no one would have known.
One of the managers actually did the bulk of our service – a lovely woman from the original London Cecconi’s named Janine (sp?). She was what pulled the experience out of the fire for us. She provided excellent service – and, frankly, a manager is not a waiter, so her serving us went above and beyond. When she told my friend that, as a manager she did not accept tips, my friend very nearly left no gratuity. We let her know that, through all the problems we had with our experience – the glass, the lost reservation, the poor waiter, and on and on, she was the one thing that made our experience good. In appreciation for our feedback, instead of the 50% discount on the food, she gave us a 100% discount, which was very gracious of her. All we had to pay for were our drinks. She said that, as they were getting started this week, they were looking for that sort of feedback, and she knew what Cecconi’s was about from the London restaurant, and they were trying to get their staff here up to par.
Now to the food:
I started with a nondescript negroni some of the cicchetti while waiting for my friend to join me, ordering the octopus with lemon and olives and the roasted bone marrow. The bone marrow was fantastic, coming with toast rounds, roasted garlic cloves, and sea salt. The garlic was sweet and creamy, though getting it out of its peels was a bit messy. The octopus was nowhere near the level of Osteria Mozza’s wonderful version, being a bit chewy and slightly fishy in taste, served with potato cubes, roasted grape tomatoes, and olives.
When my friend joined me, we started off with the veal meatballs and the ahi tuna tartare. The meatballs were good, quite firm and plump in a bright tomato sauce, but both the meatballs and the sauce lacked the richness of Pizzeria Mozza’s version. (Sensing a theme here?) The tuna was not my choice, and my friend regretted it – she thought it too lemony and underseasoned, but the fish was fresh. We followed by piling on meat-heavy dishes. The artichoke and burrate crostini was totally forgettable. The osso buco was the hit of the night, with the veal falling off the bone (and with the bonus of more marrow), though I thought the cooking sauce could have had a little more personality. The carpaccio was good, but the strong caponata and Venetian dressing (essentially a very lemony mayonnaise) drowned out a lot of the meat’s flavor. Probably the best dish was the pappardelle with housemade sausage, which had a nice meaty cream sauce with onions. It was the one dish with the right balance of complexity and simplicity of the best Italian food.
We opted for the blood orange cake with caramel and yogurt for dessert. The cake had the texture of something like French toast, and the caramel, with bits of orange zest, was more like warm marmalade. It was good, though, and not too sweet, although what made it blood orange and not, say, Valencia escaped me. The wine options by the glass are not huge, though mostly Italian. My wine was okay, but nothing great. My friend asked to get a taste of a Super Tuscan on the list, which never arrived. The manager Janine then brought her a full glass on the house. (That was good because it tasted something like gasoline – not a winner.)
When all is said and done, the food is sometimes quite good, sometimes mediocre, but never anything truly remarkable. Cecconi’s is not Mozza but any stretch of the imagination. What could set it apart could be impeccable service and an inviting atmosphere, but having dinner in a room something like a trendy nightclub with waiters’ scrambling like Keystone Cops really does not compensate for that. There were celebrities in attendance, and Cecconi’s will likely pop up on the ubiquitous Chowhound “Where Should I Go for Star Sightings?” threads, but is it a restaurant for people who love great food and elegant dining? No – at least for now, they need to look elsewhere. With the boisterous noise levels, the poor floor layout, the huge party crowds bulging from the center, the chaotic if well-meaning service, and the food quality that never rises above quite good, Cecconi's is apparently a restaurant expressly designed for people who don't love to dine.