Friday, July 13, 2007

Opening Day at Osteria Mozza

It's no secret that I'm a pilgrim to chef Mario Batali's mecca. But even I was surprised to be the first patron to cross Osteria Mozza's threshold on opening day.

Upon entering, the excitement and anticipation is palpable, as if everyone snapped into place moments before. All eyes are on the "walk-ins" as we approach the dazzling white marble Mozzarella bar at 5:45 pm. The dapperly appointed servers at attention, eager chefs at the bar, a smiling chef Nancy Silverton, and a flushed pony-tailed chef Mario Batali (sporting a pink shirt and orange crocs) all track our first reactions.

The space feels sophisticated and welcoming, with an expanse of silvery sage blue walls up to vast airy ceilings. Mario recalls the feeling you get in Grand Central Station, amidst all the hustle-and-bustle -- which this restaurant is sure to see -- when you look up and sense the grandiosity of the space as it absorbs the noise around you.

Immediately, we're greeted with a Mozzarella rollatini with capers, pesto, tomatoes and olives, and we celebrate our good fortune with a glass of Prosecco. The late afternoon sun ambiently enhances the crystal glasses, baroque wine decanters, gleaming silver, and clean white linens that dot the setting.

The menu offers a range of Antipasti, specialties from the Mozzarella bar, Primi, Secondi and Contorni inspired by the Bologna region in Italy. To start, we select Prosciutto di Parma and melon with extra virgin olive oil. The Antipasti is composed before our eyes. The melon is snatched from one of the many eclectic still-life-esque bowls on top of the counter. On the back counter of the mozzarella bar sits the Osteria's "prestige piece" -- a glorious fire engine red antique Berkel deli meat slicer, loaded with a gorgeous leg of prosciutto and primed for thin slicing.

The meltaway proscuitto and drippingly succulent sweet melon combination is a dream. We learn the melons were sourced on Wednesday at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market and are of the Charentais variety.

Our next two dishes are specialties from the Mozzarella bar and both champion Burrata cheese. With renowned chef Nancy Silverton in command of her celebrated station, we know we're in store for some incredible compositions.

The Burricotti, braised artichokes, pine nuts, currants and mint pesto on grilled bread is stunning in terms of its flowery presentation and multidimensional taste.

Oozing with richness, the Burrata with asparagus, hazelnuts, brown butter and guanciale on grilled bread sends waves of creamy nutty troughs and crisp salty crests.

For the Primi course, our party-of-three splits two classic pastas from Mario's arsenal: Orechiette with sausage and Swiss chard, and Agnolotti, burro e salvia. Both are sublime fresh pastas. The perfect flavor balance and texture of the Orechiette -- finished with a trail of breadcrumbs -- trips us all out to the moon and back. This may be the best rendition of this pasta we've ever tasted.

The Agnolotti defines decadence with its silken filling of chicken, pancetta, and mortadella spiked with nutmeg in a substantial saged-scented butter sauce. (Note: the pasta portions seen in our photos have been split three ways -- they are normally much larger.)

Local Santa Barbara Spot Prawns are standouts on the Secondi menu. They arrive whole in an outrageous "al diovolo" sauce that we attempt to break down, crowned with shaved scallions. Turns out it's an amazingly fresh and piquant combination of garlic, white wine, red Fresno chiles, passato di pomodoro, and basil.

After stammering over braised or grilled beef, we opt for the Grilled Beef Tagliatta, rucola and Parmigiano with aceto balsamic. Such high quality ingredients shine here, especially the incredibly tender and flavorful beef.

Dinner at the Mozzarella bar is an engaging and exciting scene. If you are enthralled by the glory of food preparation, then I highly recommend sitting here in the center of the action.

We're happy that Mario imported Babbo's signature rockin' mix for the Osteria soundtrack, with the likes of Elvis Costello, Astrid & Bebel Gilberto, REM, Coldplay, and Neil Young. The music matches the buzzy upbeat vibe.

Honestly, what more could you ask for in a Los Angeles Osteria? And by partnering with chef Nancy Silverton, team Batali and Bastianich ensure authenticity with the best of LA's local purveyors and ingredients.