Italians really know how to eat. A meal always begins with wine, and since no one ever drinks wine without food, a selection of antipasti (literally, "before the meal" snacks) appears on the table or sideboard. No rush, you talk, sip wine and nibble, sometimes for hours. For this purpose, Italian cooks have perfected a broad repertoire of little dishes. In some regions, Piedmont, for example, the sheer number and variety of antipasti can be alarming. But who can resist carne cruda (raw veal with a thread of olive oil and, in season, shaved white truffles) or thick, velvety-skinned roasted peppers rolled up with a tuna and caper stuffing? Not I. Not ever.
Italian restaurants in L.A. celebrate the tradition too. Here's where to find some of the best selections of antipasti around.
— S. Irene Virbila
Ombra Michael Young at Ombra in Studio City likes to ply guests with "antipastini." Those include diminutive cone-shaped arancini (rice balls stuffed with meat ragú), creamy baccalà (salt cod and potatoes) or a lovely salad of Spanish octopus with Gaeta olives, potato and pesto. I have to get the white bean salad with red onion, capers and shrimp, maybe his classic vitello tonnato (sliced roast veal with tuna sauce) too, before moving on to his excellent pasta and risotto courses. Young is really into wine, meaning you can always drink well at this Studio City newcomer.
3737 Cahuenga Blvd., Studio City, (818) 985-7337, http://www.ombrala.com. Antipasti, $11 to $14.
Il Grano Sal Marino, chef-owner of Il Grano (and now executive chef at his family's Marino Ristorante), loves to serve crudo (raw seafood) as antipasti, and his creations from sushi-grade fish may be the best items on the menu. Other little bites to start the meal include a salad of shaved baby purple artichokes with heirloom apple and arugula or Dungeness crab with a fennel and blood orange salad showered with shaved bottarga. In season, he stuffs zucchini blossoms with ricotta seasoned with fresh marjoram. You can savor beef tongue with salsa verde too, a classic Piedmontese appetizer.
11359 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles; (310) 477-7886, http://www.ilgrano.com. Antipasti, $15 to $21.
Culina Culina at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills has its own crudo bar, where cooks prepare raw seafood such as yellowtail rolled up with cucumber, star anise and tarragon or scallops with shaved black truffle and lemon. Don't eat raw seafood? Chef Victor Casanova (yes, really, that's his name) turns out vegetarian options too — roasted eggplant with wild arugula and tomato pesto or roasted baby artichokes with olives and new potatoes. Do try the grilled octopus with fiery harissa and chickpeas, Wagyu meatballs in San Marzano tomato sauce, maybe even Manila clams in a roasted red pepper broth with smoky pancetta and lemon. Sharing the antipasti here could be dangerous: You may never even get to the pasta or main courses.
300 S. Doheny Drive, Los Angeles, (310) 860-4000, culinarestaurant.com. Crudo and antipasti, $6 to $19.
Pizzeria il Fico This new pizzeria from Vincenti chef Nicola Mastronardi proposes an array of classic antipasti. I head straight for the Roman-style artichokes in a broth fragrant with mint, or the bruschetta topped with burrata and cherry tomatoes. You can find fresh fava beans with pecorino and crispy guanciale, also meatballs filled with mozzarella and, my favorite, panzerotti stuffed with mozzarella and tomato, then fried. Not to forget Mastronardi's fritto misto (mixed fry) of calamari, shrimp and vegetables, a dish he's been making at Vincenti for years. To be followed with a thin-crusted pizza from the wood-burning oven.
310 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 271-3426, http://www.pizzeriailfico.com; antipasti, $8 to $14.
Angelini Osteria Angelini Osteria's antipasti tend to be more substantial than most — fresh anchovies with a salad of greens and beets, delicious braised tripe with tomatoes, or chicken livers with green beans and a splash of real aceto balsamico. Grilled, slightly charred quail with the house-made guanciale is another treat. At lunch, order a pizza Margherita afterward, and at dinner, the superlative bombolotti all' amatriciana or bistecca all fiorentina for two.
7313 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 297-0070, http://www.angeliniosteria.com. Antipasti, $13 to $18.
Sotto Sotto's menu doesn't strictly use the word "antipasti," but you can find the equivalent tucked into the "small" and "medium" categories. That would be the delightful panelle (chickpea fritters with lemon) and peppers al forno (peppers roasted in the wood-burning oven and garnished with oregano and capers). Under "medium," chef-owners Steve Samson and Zach Pollack propose succulent grilled pork meatballs with bitter greens and pecorino, braised ocopus with chickpeas, chard, preserved lemon and bottarga. My fave, though, has to be sardines alla piastro (on a flat griddle) with a winter Sicilian citrus salad in a crushed olive-pistachio vinaigrette. One of the few L.A. Italians to feature truly regional dishes.
9575 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 277-0210, http://www.sottorestaurant.com. Antipasti, $5 to $16.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun