THE white marble counter top veined in gray is cool to the touch. I take a sip of Vermentino, enjoying its delicate minerality, and look over the menu at Osteria Mozza, which might be the hardest reservation in town right now. But for me, the best seat in the house has to be one in the middle of the room at the L-shaped "mozzarella bar, " where you can't even make a reservation -- it's first come, first served.
And it's the best perch from which to take in the entire riveting scene. You'd never find an osteria like this anywhere in Italy. It's more fun, for one thing, very urban and high-spirited. Four-month-old Osteria Mozza, next door to the smaller, more casual Pizzeria Mozza, doesn't try to re-create Italy. Instead of nostalgia, Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali give you something real and direct. And instead of the tried and true, it's a riff on Italian cuisine from two of America's best chefs, with Joe Bastianich, son of Lidia, as the third partner.
The mozzarella bar is Silverton's novel take on antipasti: Everything is based on Italian fresh cheeses. She and Batali (who drops in from New York from time to time) and chef Matt Molina (who runs the kitchen and worked with Silverton at Campanile) have come up with some trump cards for the osteria's full menu too.
From my perch at the bar, I can see bowls filled with lemons or olives, la mozzarella, and the other ingredients Silverton uses in her meditations on cheese. She's behind the counter most nights, turning out beguiling little dishes. The most interesting people are hanging here -- and hanging onto their seats. The idea of a quick bite can easily turn into a couple of hours. It's dangerous sitting here: You get very, very hungry watching her plate the dishes.
Every meal here begins with a complimentary stuzzichino, or pick-me-up, a spiral of mozzarella rolled with sweet basil leaves, dried tomato and olives drizzled with sharp, green olive oil.
Suddenly, I'm craving more cheese, specifically the bufala mozzarella flown in from southern Italy, this one from Basilicata. It's a bulbous packet, tied at the top with string, absolutely sumptuous in its simplicity. This is the real thing, mozzarella so fresh it's practically weeping milk, presented with braised leeks and some fett'unta (oiled bread, or toast) to set it off.
Preening at the door
BETWEEN bites, I'm taking in the crowd, a wild mix of ages and styles that only a city like L.A. or New York can produce. Come early, come late, the place is alive. Just watch the entrance. Everybody wakes up and preens a little the minute they walk in the door. And though the place is casual, they're dressed to impress. Parties waiting for a table lurk at the "amaro bar" at the back, sipping Prosecco or obscure Italian bitters as they survey the room, hoping for that quiet(er) table in the corner, or that deuce not two feet from some famous face.
Meanwhile, at the bar, Silverton serves up toast slathered in creamy burricotti crowned with braised artichokes, currants, pine nuts and a fragrant mint pesto, incorporating the Arab-influenced flavors of Sicily.
For a late-night snack, she's got a scamorza panino with Armandino Batali's (Mario's dad's) salame and heat-generating cherry peppers. Or stracciatella, a soft cheese, with fresh, crisp celery, scallions and a refreshing herb salad. I love the mozzarella in carozza, squat rectangles of cheese dressed in anchovies and lemon then breaded and fried.
Sheep's-milk ricotta is terrific too. Like the mozzarella, it has to be served absolutely fresh, or it's not worth your while. When Silverton gets it in, she might serve a mound of the fragile fresh cheese with a little lemon zest and some lightly toasted hazelnuts.
Batali, who with Bastianich owns a bevy of restaurants in New York (and a notable one in Las Vegas) weighs in with his own antipasti. Some I recognize from Babbo in New York or B&B in Vegas. Batali has made his mark with his swashbuckling take on Italian cuisine. The big guy did time in Emilia Romagna, land of pork, butter and cream, and that region's taste for rich cuisine has its imprint all over his cooking. And his food makes no concessions for our summer weight climate. It's big, bold and brash, with flavors cranked up to the max.
Ready for more antipasti? How about crispy pig trotter? It's not what you think. The pig has been boned, the luscious chunks of pork formed into a patty and fried to a golden crisp. Served with cicoria (chicory) and a dollop of hard-working mustard, it's rich and filling. Fat octopus tentacles charred on the grill taste tender and sweet, served with a straightforward salad of potatoes, celery and lemon.
Tripe alla Parmigiana is ribbons of tripe slow-braised in tomato sauce to achieve a wonderful velvety texture that melts in your mouth. And I can't stay away from the sumptuous grilled figs swaddled in pancetta and served with some wilted dandelion greens.