Having noted Mr. Grubs wonderful compendium of Los Angeles food and the latest gushing of LA Chowhounds over the recently (?) discovered restaurant La Buca, I thought I was going to have the Italian meal of a lifetime.
Unforunately, I did not. Which is not to say that the meal was bad, it just wasnt what I expected, in part, because my own biases got in the way.
La Buca is very similar to a favorite of mine, Girasole. They are both small, neighborhood places run by families incredibly proud of their Italian heritage. The appetizer and pasta menus are very similar at both restaurants. And neither restaurant has a fee for corkage and they both open any and every bottle of wine you provide without question. (La Buca actually has stem ware for you to use, while Girasole only has stemless glasses).
On to the food
For those of you who have been there, you know they bring out some homemade bread and a spicy marinara sauce for you to enjoy while you are going over the menu. While the bread was average, the tomato sauce was excellent and I made sure to save some to savor with the rest of the meal. It tasted fresh, perfectly seasoned without any hint of acidity and just the right touch of heat.
To start, my friend and I split the burrata special that night. It was a generous portion of the cream filled mozzarella served over a plate of sliced salumi, pepper salumi, speck and proscuitto, with arugula, cherry tomatoes and avocado. Unfortunately, the cherry tomatoes were not ripe and a few even tasted sour. I do not think they were necessary for the dish and would have kept them off of that nights special. Tomatoes are something very seasonal for me and I think they are best left for the summer, certainly not December, even in Los Angeles. The most disappointing this about the dish, however, was the arugula. I couldnt get past the fact that it tasted like it came out of one of those triple washed bags of lettuce from Ralphs or Vons. My dining partner felt the same way. While the avocado seemed out of place, it was the freshest vegetable on the plate and actually went very well with the cheese and the meats. The cured meats were good (I particularly liked the peppered salami and I, like Pat Saperstein, wish more places in LA served speck) and the burrata was exceptional (thats what happenes when you mix fresh cream with unspun mozzarella curds). All in all, the appetizer was disappointing not because the main focus of the dish, the cheese or the meat were not high quality, but because I thought that any kitchen in the city could have produced that dish. A kitchen truly in touch with their ingredients, which is how many of the recent posts describe La Buca, would have left the less then perfect tomatoes and the arugula off the plate that night and let the cheese and the cured meats stand on their own.
Our first pasta dish was the gnocci with the butter and sage sauce. This is something I have had many times at Girasole and I think La Bucas version just didnt compare. There was a generous portion of the pasta for the price and it was a very good rendition of what I think is a tough restaurant dish. It was very light and properly seasoned (something many restaurants cannot accomplish), but it lacked a certain creaminess quality that I personally prefer in gnocci. Perhaps I was disappointed because I can make La Bucas gnocci at home, while I have been unable to replicate Girasoles.
Our second pasta dish was the tagliatelle bolognese. Here, the homemade pasta was perfect. While I enjoy a more al dente preparation for dried pasta, I think La Bucas silky (a word I stole from other Chowhound posters) rendition of their fresh pasta is great. I dont really think the noodles could have gotten any better. I did, however, think the sauce was average. It wasnt any better than a number of other restaurants in the city and once again I think I was expecting more considering the glowing chowhound reviews (in fact, I hate to say it, but I think I tasted Bolognese sauce at Beechwood in Venice the very next night).
At this point in time we tried to order a pizza, but we were told that the guys in the kitchen were tired and no longer wanted to cook any more pies. This is somewhat understandable and very Italian in my mind. While many businesses in the US would continue working their employees for every last dollar, these guys know when to call it a night. It was frustrating, however, to see a pizza come out of the kitchen about 10-12 minutes later for another table. We must have missed the cutoff by about 30 seconds.
We were offered dessert, but we passed, probably because we were still a little disappointed in the pizza scenario. We did have a couple espressos and then we were given what I think was the best thing of the night, two complimentary glasses of house-made limoncello. Apparently they make it in back for personal use. I wanted to buy the rights to start selling the stuff commercially right then and there. It was excellent.
In the end, I think La Buca is a good neighborhood restaurant, something definitely worth trying once and worth repeating if you live in the area. But, I do not think it is the best rendition of Italian food in the City. Had I gone into the restaurant not expecting so much I think I would have come away with a stronger review. I promise, however, to reserve final judgment until I get a chance to try the Jijo pizza with speck, walnuts and truffle oil and the tiramisu.
FYI, the meal was $53 before tip for two. An excellent price considering the amount of money you can spend on terrible meals in other restaurants in LA.