Passersby stand and stare at the spectacle inside the palatial Brockman Building at the corner of 7th and Grand. Floor-to-ceiling windows put the whole shebang that is Bottega Louie on full display: gray-veined marble floors, imposing pillars and a ceiling high enough that Cirque du Soleil trapeze artists could do their thing. Some of the more decorative touches look like a collaboration between Louis XV (Louie?)and Gianni Versace.
Grand? Did I say grand?
In the dining room with its sea of tables, a quilted Chanel bag is slung over a chair next to a baby stroller, with baby. A downtown hipster flashes his fully illustrated arm as he reaches across the table for a slice of pizza. A table of highly styled nerds at the back erupts into laughter, clinking glasses.
Who wouldn't gawk, though, at the sight of so many people eating so much food, arms waving, trying to shout above the fray? Or the expanse of stainless steel kitchen where eight, nine, 10 -- count 'em -- cooks are working furiously, sending out stacked sheaves of romaine (the Caesar salad), butter lettuce freckled with balsamico and stacked and strewn with candied walnuts (the Modena salad), slabs of meaty lasagna and he-man portions of osso buco?
Bottega Louie takes abbondanza to heart with an all-Italian menu served in generous portions at moderate prices -- with plenty of service. The kitchen gets the food out fast, which is why the restaurant can feed 800 on a weekend night. OK, it's not the best Italian food in town, but it's generally fresh and pretty good, and you can't beat the quality-price ratio. Plus, it feels like you're somewhere special, not just stuck at a table in the corner of yet another nondescript trattoria.
Be forewarned: The noise level at Bottega Louie is punishing. It's generally a full house, even on a weeknight. And here that would mean, oh, 150 or so guests, plus more in the bar, and a few urban stragglers checking out the array of take-out food (tired-looking and expensive). Ah, but the pastries look adorable lined up in rows: eclairs striped in minty green, dainty little lemon tarts, berry tartlets. Thimble-shaped canelé, slender cupcakes and croissants glisten in the glass case near the bar.
A strict no-reservations policy means there can sometimes be a wait -- maybe 10 minutes on a weeknight and up to two hours at prime time on a weekend. In that case, repair to the bar for a cocktail or a glass of wine, take in the performance in the open kitchen, and look over the large one-page menu.
First of all, order one of the $14 pizzas, each of which must be 14 inches across, not your diminutive dinner plate-size models. They're thin-crusted and spare on the toppings in the Italian style, not particularly inventive but fine. All the usual suspects are available -- Margherita, sausage, pepperoni, even a clam pizza with cheese. I'd give them a solid B.
If you plan on having a main course, don't get carried away with the appetizers. Salads could each easily feed two or three, more if you're sharing several dishes. The Caesar, Modena and Louie salads are all good. The latter isn't a shrimp Louie. It's a tasty mix of chilled iceberg lettuce with hearts of palm, avocado and some cooked shrimp in a Dijon vinaigrette. Some of the other salads, though, tend to be overdressed.
The small plates section of the menu features appetizers and more traditional sides, and at $6 to $8, you can afford to be extravagant in your ordering. Fried calamari is beautifully crunchy and not at all greasy. It comes with a thick marinara sauce for dipping, but I think the basil aioli works much better. You just have to ask. Order burrata and you get a huge piece of the creamy white cheese sitting on a little pesto and crowned with some tomatoes on the branch that have been roasted in the oven. $8? How do they do it?
You can get garlicky sautéed broccolini, meatballs in marinara sauce, wrinkly roasted heirloom carrots in a rainbow of colors, even clams oreganata, more than 30 selections, all pretty decent.
Main courses come in oval dishes and are big enough for sharing too. Classics such as that tall stacked lasagna laced with a rather dry Bolognese sauce, or a bowl of mussels and clams steamed in white wine are just $14. Free-range chicken sautéed with fresh artichoke hearts, garlic and capers in a light white wine sauce or chicken Milanese are just $1 more and taste like real food.
Pastas, though, are merely workmanlike. Avoid the stodgy macaroni and cheese and the penne with shrimp and broccolini: The shrimp are overcooked, the sauce missing in action.
Other main courses are almost all under $20, with the exception of a couple of ordinary steaks and, oddly enough, the osso buco, which will run you $40. When you see it, you'll know why: It's huge, easily enough for two, if not three. And actually, it's quite delicious, the meat braised long enough to make it tender and give the sauce some complexity.
Kurobuta pork chops may be the best deal -- three thin, tasty pork chops with homemade apple sauce for $14. At these prices, if you live downtown (and don't have to pay the $7.50 valet charge), it hardly pays to cook.
The wine list is mostly Italian and Californian. Look before you leap at a glass of wine: A bottle is always a better buy if you're planning on having more than one glass. I wish the Italian selections were more compelling, though, given that there's so much good wine around right now.
If you can't pass up a soufflé, then by all means order the chocolate one, which the waiter will tell you takes 25 minutes. It's big and dark and warm, with crème anglaise to pour inside. The hit is more like a cup of hot cocoa than deep dark heart-racing chocolate.
There's a "flat apple tart" with a rather tough crust served warm with a ball of vanilla ice cream. Skip the tart and go straight to the gelato from Altadena's Bulgarini. You can get a trio of flavors -- vanilla, chocolate and a gritty almond. Or try the equally fine sorbet (strawberry, cherimoya and pineapple).
Open all day long, serving pastry and coffee from 6:30 a.m. and breakfast from 10:30 a.m. weekdays, brunch from 9 a.m. weekends, Bottega Louie is listed formally as Bottega Louie Los Angeles, which can only mean that Daniel Flores and partners have their sights set on opening this high-end, moderately priced restaurant in other cities.
Once the new wears off, they've got to keep the crowd coming. With so many restaurants competing for the same customers downtown, that's going to be tough. Bottega Louie's big advantage, though, is price. The place looks expensive, but it isn't. And that may just turn out to be the formula for success in these uncertain times.