By Richard Foss Richard@RichardFoss.com
“I’ve been to another place called Hostaria, but they spelled it different,” mused my friend as we sat down at Hostaria del Piccolo in Venice. He was right – most restaurants use the modern Italian spelling osteria, but this place uses an archaic version of the traditional name for a country inn.
This is only one of the confusing things about this restaurant, which shares the same name and ownership as another restaurant in Santa Monica. To make things even more difficult for people who finally figure out both the name of the place they’re going and the location, the restaurant has no sign – an annoying pretension for a casual place.
Once you finally figure out where to go, it’s worth the trip. The menu has many selections from that other Venice, the one on the Adriatic Sea, and we started our meal with two of them – marinated eel with pickled sweet onions and a dish of grilled octopus with roasted seasonal vegetables. There are several other interesting traditional items, like beef tongue in tuna sauce and roasted wild boar sausage, and we could have made a meal just of starters.
Though I usually start my meal with wine, some unusual cocktails caught my eye so I had a “Little Italy” – rye whiskey, vermouth and cynar, a liqueur distilled from artichokes and herbs. Cynar has a complex, bitter flavor, and unless you like bitter, steer clear of this one. I enjoy it, so I found this an interesting aperitif. My companion favored a daily special called Ferragosto, a bright, refreshing summer drink that included rum, grapefruit juice and liqueurs.
The eel and octopus arrived quickly, the former very different from the grilled dish served in Japanese restaurants that hides the slightly jellylike natural texture. It was delicious and unusual, with the pickled onions tasting like a particularly tangy sauerkraut and providing an excellent contrast. Octopus and squid are favorite dishes around the Adriatic and there are several preparations on the menu here. This one was very well conceived and executed, with the tender and slightly smoky octopus atop a mix of zucchini and eggplant, and a grilled lemon slice to add if desired.
We hadn’t ordered more starters because a particular item had caught our eye – a black dough pizza topped with fresh tuna, green onions and a pizzaiola sauce. The dough is black thanks to squid ink, and it adds a gentle seafood flavor while making the pizza look burned. Unfortunately, it also makes it hard to gauge in a woodburning oven, and our pizza was overdone at the edge. The flavor of the middle part was splendid; the seared sushi grade tuna was sensational with the sauce, cheese and crust, so we ate that and discarded the edge.
I paired the seafood with a Fiano Avellino, an exceptional white wine with a slight smoky finish. Our server, Jen, also offered a taste of a Vermentino, a wine I usually like, but I found this vintage a bit thin in comparison.
We continued with pastas – pappardelle with white duck ragu and a daily special of carbonara. Both of these were served using Venetian recipes rarely seen here – the duck had no tomatoes but had flavors of carrot, mushroom, parmesan and sage. As for the carbonara, American chefs usually make this with cream and peas instead of a combination of egg, oil, pancetta and a grind of pepper. Both dishes emphasized simple uncluttered flavors, and though I prefer guanciale instead of pancetta in my carbonara, I’d happily have either again. We paired these with an elegant Montepulciano and a fresh, fun to drink Barbera – the former was excellent with the duck, the latter with both.
The pasta portion sizes are deliberately moderate to encourage diners to explore the menu, so we had room for dessert – a flourless chocolate cake and tiramisu. The tiramisu was made with authentic savoiardi biscuits rather than soft sponge cake so it had a different texture than usual, but the flavor of slightly sweet mascarpone and cocoa hit the spot. The cake was even better – the bittersweet chocolate with tart raspberry sauce and fresh whipped cream was a perfect end to the meal. Well, not quite an end – my companion got to talking with the bartender, and after a few minutes of chatting he insisted we try a Poli Cilegie cherry brandy. We might easily have continued chatting and tasting, but this brisk, bracing finish was perfect for me.
Our food ran $88 for two, and we spent about the same for beverages thanks to preferring some of their higher-end drinks. It was completely worth it for a genteel evening on the outdoor patio with some of the most authentic and delicious Northern Italian food on the Westside, and we will be back.
Hostaria del Piccolo is at 512 Rose Ave. in Venice. Open daily 11:30 a.m., close 10 p.m. Su-Thu, 11 p.m. Fr/Sa. Full bar, validated parking in nearby lot, patio dining quieter than inside, wheelchair access good. Menu at hostariadelpiccolo.com. 310-392-8822.