Vincenzo’s Ristorante Italiano is a taste of New York on Montana Avenue

By Jasmin St. Claire (

Restaurateur Vincenzo Nicoletta, seated, and his staff make diners feel like part of the family Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Restaurateur Vincenzo Nicoletta, seated, and his staff make diners feel like part of the family
Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Being a native New Yorker is sometimes an advantage in West L.A. For one, I’ve always been better at cursing out cab drivers than the locals.

There are disadvantages, too: I’m saddled with a New Yorker’s palate. It craves the flavors and ambiance of the kind of old-school Italian restaurant you’d find in one of the boroughs.

But I made my home in L.A. because I love it, and as part of the compromise that comes with romance, I’ve learned to bite my tongue and smile politely whenever friends tell me they’ve found a true New York Italian restaurant here.

That is, until a recent visit to Vincenzo’s Restaurant in Santa Monica.

Seeing the small tables and softly lit interior through restaurant’s single bay window, I am immediately taken back to similar discoveries in, say the lower Manhattan. On this particularly cool evening, the warmth and intimacy of the place draws me in.

The romance begins as soon as Luis, the waiter, sits us at a table near the window. It doesn’t hurt having Frank Sinatra trading off with Tony Bennet and a little bit of Chet Baker on the audio system.

Even before I open the menu, the green pottery on the table used for dispensing oil and vinegar caught my eye. It’s from Deruta, Italy, a town famous for its ceramics. Simple, elegant and hand-made, it matches the rest of the decor, which has the feel of an Italian country house. Despite its old-school vibe, Vincenzo’s has a tastefulness and simplicity that’s entirely up to date.

The menu offers a modest number of choices, which is great because too many options can be overwhelming and stretch the kitchen staff thin. Despite Vincenzo’s fidelity to tradition, daily specials offer surprises such as braised Japanese pork.

Louis says that owner Vincenzo Nicoletta bases the menu on whatever fresh ingredients are available locally, or through specialty imports. Vincenzo only serves mozzarella from Italy, Luis says, assuring me the organic salad is also bona fide: Vincenzo’s wife grows the tomatoes in their back yard.

I’m accompanied this evening by a friend visiting from Ohio. After getting over his disappointment that corn-on-the-cob isn’t on the menu, we agree on what I hope will be a representative sampling: insalate di marinari, organic salad, Agnolotti ravioli (pasta wrapping and mushroom stuffing made in house) and, because I’m feeling daring, lamb chops in spicy Dijonaise sauce.

Louis recommends a Montepulciano red wine ($9 per glass) and Ducale ($7) sparkling water. Ducale, which to my taste seems to have a lower sodium content than others and therefore doesn’t pickle your mouth with every sip — is the perfect accompaniment to the warm, fresh-baked table bread.

Louis brings our organic salad ($10.95) laid out on a flat bowl: locally-grown lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, Italian mozzarella and fresh basil, dressed only with a light sheen of extra virgin olive oil and a light sprinkling of salt. The minimalist dressing accentuates the freshness, and I swear I can taste the sunlight in every bite of the home-grown tomatoes.

The seafood salad ($15.95) arrives with shrimp, octopus, mussels, squid dressed with celery, chives and paper-thin slivers of garlic. The appetizer serving is generous enough for two people. Everything is fresh and seasoned with minimalist dashes of salt and olive oil, like the salad. Vincenzo is bold enough to let his ingredients speak for themselves.

As we dine, I notice a rumpled yet distinguished silver-haired gentleman visiting each table to speak with patrons, many of them on a first-name basis. Soon he joins us and introduces himself as Vincenzo. His eyes appear as blue as the waters off his native Amalfi coast.

When I comment on his low-sodium cooking style, he says “this is the exact way we do it at home in Italy.” He has no idea I’m here to write a review but shows genuine concern that we’re enjoying our meal — especially his wife’s tomatoes.

The main course arrives in perfectly sized portions. I sink my teeth into the delicate seared crust on the lamb chops ($29.95), and the meat inside is perfectly succulent. For those who worry about the gaminess of lamb, fear not at Vincenzo’s. The lamb chops are cooked to an ideal plump, pink tenderness yet have no traces of gaminess.

The ravioli ($21.95) are cooked to a light and tender al dente around the Agnolotti mushrooms, which have a faint woodsy sweetness to them. Unexpectedly, the ravioli blend perfectly with a light, fragrant tomato sauce that I wish I could bottle and take home.

For desert we order espressos, ricotta with pear, and cherry pie baked by Vincenzo (each about $6 per person). Both are excellent choices, though I am slightly disappointed that Vincenzo’s does not serve a traditional Italian ricotta cheesecake.

Vincenzo tells me he serves food he personally likes and believes in. Such integrity is what makes his restaurant a gem, ricotta cheesecake or not.

Vincenzo’s has been around for 18 years. Somehow, I’ve never noticed it before. But I will return to Vincenzo’s at least once a month to sample the rotating specials and frequent changes in the dessert menu. And thanks to this find,
I’ll need to get back to New York a little less often.