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Changing His Tune

For His 8th Restaurant Downtown, Joachim Splichal Tries Italian

July 07, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

It's an unfortunate fact of life that most of the serious restaurants in the L.A. area are concentrated on the Westside. Despite that, Joachim Splichal, one of L.A.'s best-known entrepreneur-chefs, doesn't have a single restaurant there.

The one restaurant the German-born, French-trained chef did open on the Westside, Max au Triangle in Beverly Hills, failed. Then came Patina (which is celebrating its 13th birthday this year) and a host of Patina and Pinot spinoffs. Splichal recently opened his eighth restaurant downtown, two blocks from Staples Center, called Zucca. That's his eighth restaurant downtown, not his eighth restaurant. And this time it's Italian, not French.

When I say Splichal, I mean the Patina Group, which was bought by the New York-based Restaurant Associates in 1999. However, Splichal and his wife and partner, Christine, still run the group of 22 restaurants, most of which are in Los Angeles. The Splichals have a talent for creating a fun and lively ambience--think Cafe Pinot next to the main library downtown, the martini bar at Pinot Hollywood, or the first Pinot, still going strong: Pinot Bistro in Studio City.

Zucca, in keeping with its Italian theme, looks the part of a big city ristorante. Occupying the bottom of an office building at 8th Street and South Figueroa, it's one of the few downtown L.A. restaurants that has a presence on the street. Cafe curtains screen the diners, but the milky Venetian glass chandeliers, red silk lampshades and colorful, hand-painted majolica platters and vases in the windows telegraph the new restaurant to passers-by.

At the entrance, ottoman-size wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano peek out from a display window. Past the heavy brass-trimmed doors, the first thing a guest sees is the fire of the wood-burning pizza oven. Next to it, an antique wooden cabinet shows off Zucca's signature handmade biscotti.

At lunch and at dinner, the latter when most of downtown is often dead, Zucca is full of life, every table filled, a throng at the bar. The place looks as if it has been here forever, even though it's only 5 months old. That may be because the Splichals hauled much of the decor straight from Italy, such as the trio of Murano glass chandeliers, or the floor, which the waiter tells me was lifted from an abandoned Tuscan villa. On the walls, in San Francisco painter Charley Brown's scenes of Carnival in Venice, masked figures in a swirl of black capes dance above the glamorous butter-yellow banquettes.

Waiters are dressed in crisp white jackets embroidered with ZUCCA. The word has a nice fat sound. It's Italian for pumpkin, a theme that recurs throughout the menu.

A new manager, who is French and fresh from his last posting in Dubai, dishes out the risotto of the day--radicchio with quail. The glaze is delicious, aceto balsamico with Barolo and some rosemary.

The best appetizer is uncooked, which says something about the kitchen headed by executive chef Giancarlo Gottardo. This dish is a platter of thinly sliced rustic salame and supple prosciutto di Parma. Another time, the soup of the day is a lovely potato with saffron, zucchini and ribbons of squash blossom.

Pizzetta di zucca is a little pizza smeared with roasted red winter pumpkin (there's that zucca), goat cheese and caramelized onion. It's not much of a success. And what's this mystery appetizer? It's seared scallops perched on a bruschetta of toast spread with roasted eggplant. How are you supposed to eat this misconceived dish? You can't exactly pick it up and take bites out of the hefty scallop.

Plating tends to look messy, with too much sauce, too many ingredients. It's as if cafeteria cooks were asked to perform in a professional kitchen. The model is all wrong. Fritto misto, for example, offers hunks of broccoli florets, asparagus, green beans and julienned zucchini in a thick, somewhat greasy batter. The sauce, oddly, is a garbanzo dip. Heavy and heavier. For one salad, baby artichokes and diced tomatoes are turned out of a mold and topped with two huge seared scallops. It's not a pretty picture.

At lunch, panzanella, or Tuscan bread salad, is made with croutons instead of torn stale bread soaked in water. This is a dish that only works if it's made with top-quality ingredients--peppery green-gold olive oil, ripe tomatoes, cucumbers and fragrant sweet basil--which is not the case here. Nothing sings in the salad of grilled shrimp with white beans, aceto balsamico and arugula. The sweetness of the aceto doesn't do a thing for the beans. Starchy and bland, they need something more refreshing and acidic, such as red wine vinegar or lemon.

Pastas tend to be oversauced. Sardinian "gnochetti," a ribbed shell pasta tossed in a sausage rag laced with fennel and topped with pungent pecorino, is a hearty and sloppy dish that will put hair on your chest. The best of the pastas I tried was the linguine alle vongole, made with tiny clams in the shell. It has a nice balance of garlic and white wine to olive oil.

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