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A Little Mountain Music

Rocco serves up good wine and fine jazz in a setting near and dear to the heart of its owner.

November 05, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A nice little place, somewhere in the mountains, to hear jazz and sip fine wine. That's all Rocco Somazzi was looking for when he decided to open his own restaurant.

After all, in the Italian part of Switzerland, near his hometown of Lugano, there are plenty of places to kick back, choose from a first-rate wine list and take in some appealing jazz.

"I couldn't find anything like that in Los Angeles," Somazzi said. "You can find any kind of restaurant you want, but there isn't any true wine library, a place where you can buy many different kinds of wine by the glass, hear good jazz and not spend a fortune."

The obvious solution: Do it himself. So Somazzi--despite the fact that he had never owned a restaurant and is, at 26, barely out of graduate school--decided to do just that. The tricky part was the qualification about the little place being "somewhere in the mountains."

"I wanted to have a relaxing place that wasn't in the center of the city," he said. "And I found this place, which is the best I could find--secluded, geographically in the center of the city, and in the Santa Monica Mountains."

This perfect spot is at the top of Beverly Glen, in a restaurant formerly known as Adriano's. Somazzi bought it last year, operating it briefly under that name while he planned a complete renovation. In July, it reopened as Rocco.

"My sister is the architect who developed the new plan," Somazzi said. "We wanted to create a European atmosphere in a California setting. So we brought in stones, wood, tile--all Italian. But the open feeling, with the French doors and the glass, is California with a little Asian influence."

The heart of Somazzi's plan was a room expressly oriented toward jazz and wine.

"I always had a passion for jazz," said Somazzi, who himself plays classical guitar. "There are festivals in almost every European city during the summer, and we have one in Lugano as well. But after living here for almost five years, I was amazed when I met so many excellent musicians who didn't have many places to play."

Somazzi created a performance venue separate from the main dining room. A raised stage sits in one corner, and the room is filled with several angular bar areas. The bar stools allow plenty of seating--up to 70 people with room for 50 or 60 more to stand.

"The music room--the bar--I want to be a serious jazz club," he said. The music doesn't start until after most diners are finished, he said, because he didn't want jazz as background music for the meals.

He did, however, feel strongly about combining wine and jazz. Rocco serves more than 30 wines by the glass. In the performance room, two large oak wine barrels appear to be embedded in the wall.

"We are the only place in L.A. where you can drink wine before it's bottled," Somazzi said. "And it's not jug wine, it's very high-quality wine. We have a relationship with this winemaker who brings us two wines, merlot and zinfandel, both from grapes grown in Southern California."

The wine is untreated and unfiltered, with no sulfites. Somazzi transfers barrels of wine into casks that are pressurized to keep the wine fresh, and then taps the casks almost like a keg of beer.

"It may be a bit strong, maybe rough for some people, but it's very good. And it's alive, in the sense that the flavor changes somewhat every day, sometimes more acid, sometimes more mild, depending upon the weather and other factors."

Working with his music director, Matt Piper, he has built a regular schedule of jazz performances, with bookings Tuesday through Saturday nights. (The room is closed on Sundays.) Among the acts that have appeared--and undoubtedly will return--are trumpeter Bobby Bradford, tenor saxophonist Dale Fielder, guitarist Dave Koonse and the Los Angeles Jazz Quartet.

Somazzi and Piper admit favoring guitarists, but have been open to all sorts of configurations. "We've had an organ trio, we've had quartets and duos," he said. "But mostly I just want serious musicians who are original, creative and well accomplished on their instruments." Somazzi also is looking into booking national acts in the near future.

"I want to be here for a long time," he said. "I went over budget with construction and everything else, but I finally found my little place in the mountains to serve good wine and fine music. And that's too good a combination not to work."

BE THERE

Rocco, 2930 Beverly Glen Circle, Bel-Air. (310) 475-9807. No cover, no minimum in the performance bar. Special bar menu, with all items $6. Main course selections in the dining room range from $17 to $22. Appearing tonight, the Ronald Muldrow Quartet; Friday, Jon-Pall Bjarnason Trio; Saturday, the world funk music of Weingart, Heredia & Mendoza.

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