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At Vincenti, a chef comes into his own

July 16, 2008|S. Irene Virbila | Times Restaurant Critic
  • CO-OWNERS: Maureen Vincenti and chef Nicola Mastronardi honor the Old World but spin it forward with creative flair.
CO-OWNERS: Maureen Vincenti and chef Nicola Mastronardi honor the Old… (Robert Lachman / Los Angeles…)

WHEN friends I don't see nearly often enough invited me out to dinner a few weeks ago, of course I said yes, and then rearranged my schedule to work around the date. "Let's go to Vincenti, just for fun," they told me. "It's really good these days." Since I'd heard the same comment more than once recently, and it had been awhile since I'd been to the queen of the Brentwood Italian restaurants (last reviewed nearly seven years ago), I was curious.

I knew there were some changes, but nothing major. One of the original owners had bowed out and longtime chef Nicola Mastronardi, who had started out under chef Gino Angelini when Vincenti opened in 1997, was now a partner with the late Italian restaurateur Mauro Vincenti's widow, Maureen. (Angelini has since opened Angelini Osteria and La Terza.)

When we walked in, the place looked much the same. A birthday party was in session in the private dining room off the bar, with plates circling the table as someone urged somebody else to taste this, taste that. A few dates in tentative conversation at the bar, sipping Prosecco or an Italian bitter digestivo.

At the back of the dining room, the wood-burning rotisserie glowed red and a cook was taking a duck off the spit. And from the wood-burning oven beside it came enticing smells of roasting meat and fish.

Of all the Italians in Brentwood, this has always been a favorite. It's more expensive than some but delivers in terms of decor, service and an authentic Italian dining experience. The crowd is upscale and local, mostly friends having dinner with friends, the occasional business dinner, or industry insiders table-hopping.

The restaurant opened on San Vicente Boulevard shortly after Roman-born restaurateur Mauro Vincenti (Mauro, Rex il Ristorante, Fennel, Alto Palato -- all gone now) passed away. His widow, Maureen, named the ristorante for the indefatigable champion of Italian cuisine. From the beginning, she didn't pour on the Italian schtick, instead going for a sophisticated contemporary look (that hasn't dated, by the way) over the usual folkloric Italian decor. The waiters know their stuff and convey an affection for the chef and his cooking that seems genuine.

That night the menu looked fresh and interesting, and we could have easily ordered everything on it. As an antipasto, octopus and cuttlefish salad immediately caught my eye. And it's a sumptuous combination of thick triangular cuts of cuttlefish, sweet and tender, with artichokes, asparagus and fava beans.

Quail with grapes isn't new to the menu, but I've never had it so perfectly prepared. The bird is slightly charred, still warm, served with guanciale (cured pork jowl) and grapes drizzled with aceto balsamico. A special prosciutto from Parma is outstanding; sweet and soft as silk, it practically melts in the mouth, a delicious foil for creamy burrata (a cheese made with mozzarella and cream) and roasted tomatoes garnished with a fragrant basil oil.

Even if we're going straight to the pasta dishes, and bypassing the antipasti altogether, I always have to order the fried zucchini and calamari, which has been on the menu practically since Day 1. It may be a no-brainer, but the zucchini, cut into matchsticks, are as perfectly fried as something a tempura master could produce.

The baby calamari are crispy, and both are set off by the handmade tartar sauce. And one night there's a fabulous salad of soft shell crab fried whole and juicy as anything, in a lemon and caper dressing atop soft baby greens.


Chef makes his mark

Mastronardi is definitely on a roll. Maybe being a partner is what has made all the difference. He has a newfound confidence and his cooking is less prone to ups and downs. The execution is dead-on and when he wants to impress, he no longer runs straight to the fancy hotel repertoire, but comes up with something wonderfully rustic, or light, or ingeniously delicious. No question but that this is his kitchen and his cooking.

He's got some wonderful pasta dishes on the menu. I love the lasagnette, fresh sheets of pasta layered with a delicate ragu of chicken, veal and rabbit, cherry tomatoes, green beans and ricotta salata (salted cheese) shaped in the form of a small cake. And I'm crazy about the ravioli with fonduta of molten pecorino cheese in a fresh fava bean sauce embellished with finely sliced, crispy guanciale, delicious and very sweet and porky.

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