Maximiliano's space in Highland Park was designed by FreelandBuck… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Andre Guerrero is one hardworking chef with half a dozen restaurants to his credit, most successes. Though he came up in fine dining, the times are changing, and he's gradually moved to the casual, inexpensive side of the spectrum.
When his most ambitious project, Max Restaurant, foundered, he turned it into Marché LA, serving small plates. Smart move, even if he was a bit too early an adopter: The idea didn't go over big in Sherman Oaks. But Señor Fred, his Mexican restaurant there, is still turning out big plates of enchiladas and potent margaritas. And Oinkster, his porky "slow fast food" concept, has become a beloved fixture in Eagle Rock.
Now the forward-thinking Guerrero has opened Maximiliano in Highland Park. He certainly knows the 'hood. He grew up in nearby Glassell Park (where he's about to open Butter Tart Bakery) and his tribute to "kinda old school" Italian-American cooking seems perfectly pitched for the area. Set in a loft-like space on the corner of York Boulevard and Aldama Street, the newcomer brings some big-city zing to Highland Park without being over-the-top trendy, or, as the Italians would say, "trendissimo."
Maximiliano has a warm, friendly vibe and cheerful decor, not to mention an accessible menu (with prices to match) and a good little wine and beer list. The L-shaped communal table and long stainless-steel bar welcome anybody who wants to drop in without a reservation — and they're usually full up. The restaurant keeps hipster hours, open till 11 most nights, till midnight on Friday and Saturday, when many of the cozy little Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood have shut for the night.
The restaurant is just what it's supposed to be: a good place to eat. Guerrero doesn't seem to run on ego. He's more interested in making food that people enjoy than in showing off. And though his Italian food is updated with svelte contemporary touches (his pork chop, for example, is cooked sous-vide, the spumoni made with a PacoJet), Maximiliano isn't really the kind of place you'd drive across town to visit. I have friends in Highland Park who've been regulars since Maximiliano opened in October, thrilled to find pizza cooked in a wood-burning oven, spaghetti with meatballs or pan-roasted chicken with Marsala on the menu. All homey dishes from their suburban childhood but better than remembered, updated with deft touches and certainly made with better ingredients.
I've spotted Guerrero in the kitchen on a couple of occasions, training the staff, watching each dish as it heads out to the crowded dining room. He's been smart about the menu, making it straightforward enough that cooks with skill and patience can execute the dishes well, even on a busy night. And the food does seem pretty consistent, which is no small thing and all, basically, that most customers in a neighborhood place like this want.
He's been just as smart with the design from L.A.'s FreelandBuck (the York, Cafe de Leche) — bare rafters overhead, one long wall with red panels incised with looping spaghetti strands and a couple of high windows that frame trees outside. Green cutouts like fins form an eye-catching soffit above the kitchen, and peeking out from behind the bar is a double-decker pizza oven tiled in red.
And that's where you should start, with pizza, preferably one to share, maybe a classic Margherita made with fresh mozzarella or the hearty fennel sausage and mushroom variety. The crust is medium-thin, billowy at the edges, and crisp, not the most flavorful in town but good. So far, I've liked the pie topped with eggplant, roasted peppers, burrata and a smear of dark olive tapenade best. And another, made with fingerling potatoes, roasted garlic, three cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta and Parmigiano) with fresh spinach, shines. The balance of toppings to crusts seems just right — not exactly sparse but not overladen with gooey cheese either.
Accompany that pizza with a peppery wild baby arugula salad drenched in lemon and topped with shavings of pecorino. Calamari salad is really just sautéed squid in a warm marinara sauce turned out onto a green salad, an odd enough idea, but just plain dull. You're better off ordering the four meatballs in tomato sauce or the brandade, a mix of salt cod and mashed potatoes. Risotto served up in a small portion (but priced appropriately, just $7 or $8) is respectable, either with saffron and tender braised veal or with leeks, porcini and fontina.
Pasta leans toward the hearty and familiar. There's a fine tagliatelle Bolognese and spaghetti aglio olio (with garlic and oil), but I vote for the cavatelli with squid, pancetta, tomato and the crunch of bread crumbs. Waiters have their opinions on what's good but aren't pushy about it. They're terrific, really, and the place seems well-run.