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Imagine, if you will, stepping across a sea of shimmering mosaics and finding yourself standing before a pair of towering, 17th century French church doors, behind which you have good reason to believe there are infinite gastronomic wonders to be had. You catch a glimpse of the grand yet intimate dining room beyond, the walls of which are covered with murals depicting Venetian carnival scenes reminiscent of the surreal fete images captured in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant last work, “Eyes Wide Shut.” All is delicately lit by a fine row of hand-blown chandeliers casting a rosy, twilight-hour hue across the room, over to a far wall of silvering mirrors, and back to the looming church doors where you’ve been waiting, patiently, to enter paradise.
Welcome to Zucca. How it came to pass that Joachim Splichal – German-born, French-trained, one of the most deservedly renowned restaurateurs in Los Angeles – can so completely capture Italian sensibility is beyond me. It’s as if Splichal has airlifted an old Italian villa and lovingly deposited it right in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, complete with weeping cypress trees, elegant private dining rooms and a secluded outdoor terrace. And he couldn’t have chosen a more thrilling location. Downtown LA is growing at the speed of light; lofts and luxury apartment complexes are being inhabited faster than they can be built; and it’s only a matter of time before Zucca becomes LA’s answer to New York’s Balthazar or Paris’s Tour d’Argent. Except this is Italian food: hearty, down-to-earth, unpretentious, absolutely authentic.
Thursday night. Booth B30. The entire room is before us – alive, elegant, transporting. Our meal begins with a spot-on Insalata Caprese – a single slice each of bufala mozzarella and yellow heirloom tomato, lightly dressed with twenty-five-year-old balsamic vinegar (age really does make a difference!) and extra virgin olive oil, garnished with fresh summer cress. We are poured a glass of Francis Coppola’s NV Pinot Grigio – the ideal summer wine, really – and dig in. Following is one of the most perfect dishes I’ve ever eaten, in this country or in Italy: Insalata di Tonno – an impeccably crafted “salad” of home-cured Albacore tuna, baby arugula, shaved red onion, cannellini beans, lemon zest and Ligurian extra virgin oil. We sip a 2000 Plozner Chardonnay from Friuli – verdant, fresh, extremely light on the palate, a nice change from the usually pushy, oak-over-the-head Chardonnays – and sit back, delighted. There is nowhere else we’d rather be.
A pizzetta is placed before us. Yes, that’s right -- pizza -- that looks and tastes like it’s arrived straight from the ovens of Naples. But how can it be? you ask. Pizza in an elegant Italian ristorante? But that’s just it! The true test of authenticity is always the simplest things – like pizza. And here at Zucca, Splichal goes out of his way to ensure you will have the real thing. Everything – from the water to the flour and the tomatoes – is imported from Italy. Thankfully, the wood-burning oven is not thousands of miles away, but just a few feet. Our pizzetta is one of Zucca’s signature dishes – topped with Speck (lightly smoked ham), roasted pumpkin, red onions and goat cheese. Incredibile! Is that Vesuvius rumbling in the distance?
There was a dish I had once in Ferrara, in the region of Emilia-Romagna, in a private home cooked by a world-class cook. The dish was tortelloni di zucca – pumpkin-stuffed tortelloni. It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted such perfectly executed fresh pasta, but our next course – Tortelloni di Zucca al Burro e Salvia – brings me back instantly. Splichal has added a decidedly Tuscan touch, tossing the homemade pasta in a rustic sauce of fresh sage and brown butter. May we all experience such a perfect marriage in our lifetime.
As Italian food has always given the impression of being straightforward and accessible, it has generally left the Michelin star-seeking crowd in a state of confusion. Where’s the sophistication? What about the complicated sauces and classic combinations? Ah, but again, Splichal utilizes his French prowess and Italian sensibility to their full potential and has created a line-up of main courses that will both impress and satisfy even the most cosmopolitan diner. An impossibly generous piece of halibut – the texture and sweetness of fresh sea scallops – is brought over, delicately crusted with sea salt and black pepper, accompanied by sautéed pea shoots and a black and green olive tapenade and sautéed artichoke hearts. Simple, elegant, perfect. In fact, Zucca’s main courses are where Splichal’s genius really shines through. Whereas many sophisticated Italian eateries try to Frenchify their menus, Splichal takes a much more intuitive route: use the best ingredients you can get, then do as the Romans would do. Nowhere is this more evident than in Zucca’s Pan-Roasted Colorado Lamb Loin with blistered tomatoes, grilled asparagus and mint pesto. Served rare to medium rare yet cooked all the way through, it is the most perfect piece of lamb I have tasted. Accompanied by herbed soft polenta, grilled asparagus and garlicky mint pesto, the dish is the proteinaceous equivalent of REM sleep – that little window of absolute bliss that makes everything leading up to it that much more worthwhile.
The wine list is formidable – sure to rival any in the city – and is packed with what seems like absolutely everything. There are at least twenty-five wines by the glass to choose from, as well as affordable, best-in-class bottles, and off-the-charts Barbarescos, Bordeaux and Cabernets that will make you swoon. The selection is international and impressively eclectic. Take a chance, let the sommelier guide you, and discover something sure to teach your palate a thing or two.
Finish your meal with something simple – perfect Vanilla Panna Cotta, perhaps, or Homemade Biscotti. All right, Tiramisu or the decadent Torta di Cioccolato if you must. You can’t go wrong. A simple espresso, and you are gone – off to the theatre, to the Staples or Music Center, riding on Zucca’s complimentary shuttle. Or perhaps you decide – as we do – to take in the lights of downtown LA with a relaxing postprandial stroll, what the Italians call a passeggiata. Whatever you choose, it’s a given that the memory of dinner at Zucca will linger in your thoughts – at least until the next time you have the good fortune to take in its epicurean delights.
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