Oli Ola, a rustically sophisticated Italian restaurant in Pacific Palisades, really does look Italian: a brick wall here, a whitewashed wall there, paintings and brassware, an antique table in the middle of the room where the young Italian waiters fillet fish. The building itself has an imposing Italian blockiness about it. Looking out through a sculpted porch, you might think you were in Italy, except that the square pink pillars frame a blank supermarket wall.
All this has apparently struck a deep chord with the Palisades. Oli Ola fills up early, even on a Wednesday evening, with sturdy Westside paesanos in slacks and cable-knit sweaters.
When you sit down, you find little cups of olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a big bowl of raw vegetables (though not a particularly sophisticated selection, unfortunately: carrot sticks, celery, sweet peppers). A basket of Italian bread and some focaccia with onion rings baked on top soon arrive.
The food that follows is funkier than you might expect. I've never thought of Pacific Palisades as a place to go for tripe, but you can get trippa e fagioli , an appetizer of tripe sliced fairly thin and served with white beans in a mild tomato sauce. The tripe is reasonably easy to chew, but you really do have to love the flavor of tripe to enjoy this dish.
Oli Ola often imports seasonal ingredients such as Mediterranean seafood, white truffles and fresh porcini mushrooms. Some of them may blow the price range--ordinarily the highest entree costs $21.50, but a veal chop with porcini can run $38. Fortunately, the waiters warn of price surprises.
Incidentally, if fresh porcini is available, the way to order them is all by themselves as an appetizer: three or four big, tender mushrooms (well, the stems are a little fibrous) with a deliciously meaty, almost fatty flavor. The presentation couldn't be simpler--a faint suspicion of parsley, garlic and olive oil, plus some mixed salad greens on the side. However, at $24 this ranks as an expensive thrill, particularly when domestic porcini from Oregon run only about $16 a pound.
The name Oli Ola is said to mean "from here and there," and the food does come from various provinces of Italy (and maybe elsewhere; the tonno marinato appetizer--slices of fresh tuna slightly cooked at the edges and blood-rare in the middle--seems quasi-nouvelle). Apart from those pricey porcini, the most striking appetizer here is baccala alla frantoiana , made with haddock (as the menu openly admits) rather than codfish. This chunk of fish, mounted on a creamy slice of polenta, sports a thick, salty sauce of crushed black olives and a sprinkling of capers. It's a dish of contrasts and strong flavors, like finnan haddie gone madly Mediterranean.
The rest of the appetizers can be rustic in a hearty, downright starchy sense. You'd probably feel like the white-bean soup with calamari and shrimp ( zuppa di fagioli di mare ) only on a chilly night. Zuppa genovese , the potato-and-vegetable soup perked up with pesto, comes off a little more exciting.
Some appetizers are marked by generosity, even gigantism. When you order bruschetta , for instance, you don't get a couple of toast rounds with bits of this and that but a big slice of Italian bread piled an inch or so high with chopped tomatoes. They're very good tomatoes, remarkably ripe, but they make this particular bruschetta a tomato salad on soggy bread.
The crostini di fegato has the same problem. Here crostini has a singular rather than plural sense: a big slice of Italian bread with a mass of chicken-liver sauce ("pate") ladled onto it, plus some prosciutto on the side. Sogginess strikes again, but if you're feeling truly rustic, this huge appetizer might serve as an entree.
The pasta selection goes well beyond the cliched. Pennette al sugo di coniglio --tubular pasta in a meaty rabbit-and-tomato sauce topped with a rabbit leg or part of the saddle--is terrific. The bones are left in--the better for gnawing--as they are in the half-quail that garnishes risotto alle quaglie, a risotto with the proper soft-but-chewy granular texture. (Too bad the quail stock gives it such a grayish color.)
The ravioli al funghi , stuffed with ricotta and spinach, come in a meat sauce with large chunks of mushrooms. The dish may look like an untidy mess, but it's a great way to eat mushrooms.
The gigantism motif resurfaces in some of the entrees: Thin grilled swordfish steak ( spada griglia ) nearly overlaps the edges of the plate. If you want fish, though, pay attention to the specials, which may include the excellent orata , a fish technically known as gilthead bream, with a particularly rich, clean flavor. The waiters scrupulously fillet it on that table in the middle of the room in order to diminish the boniness that is this fish's drawback.