YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

EATS: in and around the Valley | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Top-Notch Italian

Denari chef builds flavorful and architecturally impressive plates.


Take a couple of heavy-hitter restaurant luxuries, such as premium martinis and cigars from a temperature-controlled humidor. Provide them in a glamorous setting showcasing a chef with solid credentials earned here and in Europe. This may sound like the recipe for a hot Westside restaurant, but we're talking Encino here, and a place called Denari.

Seating is sleek, on comfortable tapestry-upholstered chairs at granite-topped tables. Handsome murals make you overlook a somewhat cramped mall location.

Denari's admirable chef, Stefano Mazzi, has cooked at the Hotel Splendido in Portofino and at Tutto Mare in Newport Beach. He creates architecturally impressive plates, but rarely sacrifices flavor for visual appeal. If Denari has one readily discernible flaw, it's an ear-splitting sound level when the restaurant is crowded. Which is just about all the time.

I can see why it's always mobbed. This is the first upscale Italian restaurant to surface around here since Posto.

The menu is ambitious, but for Mazzi, this rarely spells trouble. After a simple, impressive beginning--you automatically get ripe black Sicilian olives, a basket of warm breads and a yin-yang pattern of balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil--there's a choice of interesting appetizers.

The delicious Caesar, for instance, is dolled up with roasted pine nuts and black olive croutons. Iron-grilled jumbo white prawns are presented on a bed of julienned potato, in wrappings constructed ingeniously from smoked pancetta bacon and grilled baby arugula.

A few of the appetizers would be better if simpler, though. There's a Napoleon of puff pastry that could have been designed by Frank Gehry. It's a craggy pile of smoked Scottish salmon, daikon sprouts, red caviar, goat cheese and olive oil, but the many flavors end up muddied. The Tower of Caserta must have been inspired by Pisa, because it looks as if it is going to fall over, the minute you stick a fork in it. This appetizer is composed of mozzarella, thick-sliced jumbo tomatoes and roasted eggplant, but they tend to be so cold you can barely taste them.

Chances are you'll have no such problems with Denari's imaginative pastas. I ordered caramelized garlic spaghetti as an afterthought, and it was the best thing I ate in the restaurant. It uses roasted garlic cloves, Ligurian olive oil from Mazzi's hometown of La Spezia, fresh herbs, seasoned bread crumbs and perfectly al dente spaghetti.

I also loved the smoked "potato dumplings," also known as gnocchi. They melt in the mouth, and the sauce, based on pink oyster mushrooms, tomatoes and a sprinkle of truffle oil, is right on the mark. One more to chew on is the banal-sounding tortiglioni with grilled Sonoma eggplant. These nicely chewy, thickly ribbed pasta tubes are drizzled with a rich San Marzano tomato sauce and mixed with half-melted cubes of tangy smoked mozzarella.

Mazzi's entrees are rich and Continental in style. His terrific oven-roasted lamb chops are presented in another tower of power-like construction, accompanied by a subtly flavorful black cherry sauce and a rustic ratatouille.

A free-range chicken comes in a copper skillet, along with fresh vegetables, garlic mashed potatoes and a heavily reduced garlic rosemary demi glaze (unfortunately my chicken was slightly overdone).

For dessert, there are sumptuously rich, chocolate-covered cannoli filled with chocolate whipped cream, the inevitable tiramisu and a nutty hazelnut torte with a butter cream filling. Denari is slang for money in Italian, and this Denari looks like one restaurant you can bank on.


Denari, 17329 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Lunch Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner daily, 5-10:30 p.m. Full bar. Parking in rear. All major cards. Suggested dishes: iron-grilled jumbo white prawns, $8.50; caramelized garlic spaghetti, half order/$7.50, full order/$10.50; tortiglioni with grilled eggplant, $8.75; oven-roasted lamb chops, market price. Call (818) 907-8107.

Los Angeles Times Articles