I had dinner on Friday night at Osteria Mozza, one of the most popular and famous restaurants in Los Angeles at the moment, joined by my friend and colleague Molly Knight, a known cheese enthusiast and a veteran diner at Mozza. The restaurant is the brainchild of three luminaries in American food, including Mario Batali, who likely needs no introduction. The primary force behind the restaurant and its neighbor, Pizzeria Mozza (next visit!), is Nancy Silverton, co-founder of the legendary La Brea Bakery as well as of Campanile restaurant, where she previously served as pastry chef. The third partner, Joseph Bastianich, is a vintner, restaurateur, and son of Lidia Bastianich, the matron of Italian-American cooking. Names like these don’t always guarantee success, of course, but in this case, the restaurant lives up to its pedigree. Everything we had was outstanding; I would say some dishes were more outstanding than others, but nothing we ordered was less than plus.
The server said the menus are updated daily, so there are no off-menu specials. We went with two starters, two primi (pastas), and one secondo (main), plus a dessert and two beers. I believe it’s the most expensive meal I’ve ever paid for myself, just barely surpassing Craftsteak. The wine list looked extensive, as you’d expect given Bastianich’s involvement, but as I can’t drink red wine and couldn’t see white standing up to the duck ragù I went for the smaller beer list instead.
For starters, Molly humored me by letting me order the testina con salsa gribiche, better known in English by the unfortunate moniker “head cheese.” It’s not actually cheese, but is a terrine or aspic made by simmering the cleaned head of a pig (or sometimes cow) so the remaining the cheek and jowl meat ends up set in a gelatin from all of the connective tissue that surrounds it. The resulting terrine can be sliced and served cold, but Mozza slices it thickly, breads one side, and pan-fries it, serving it with a sauce gribiche, an emulsion of egg yolks and mustard to which one adds capers, chopped pickles, and herbs. (One might compare this dish, then, to a hot dog with mustard and relish, but I wouldn’t want to be so crass about it.) The result is very rich, with the strongly-flavored meat surrounded in luxurious gelatin that produces a fat-like mouth feel, while I left thinking I really need to use sauce gribiche a lot more often at home. The pan-frying, by the way, gets rid of the one real objection you might have to head cheese – the stuff looks like the result of some sort of processing accident.
You could build an entire meal just from Mozza’s selection of starters based around fresh mozzarella without getting bored, but we both zeroed in on the burrata (fresh mozzarella wrapped around a suspension of mozzarella bits in cream) with bacon, marinated escarole and caramelized shallots, which I think was my favorite item of the night. The saltiness and smokiness of the bacon, the acidity of the marinated escarole, and the sharp sweetness of the shallots were all beautifully balanced and gave depth to compliment the creamy texture of the cheese, which, while extremely fresh (of course), was mild in flavor.
I would have probably told you before Friday night that I wasn’t a big fan of potato gnocchi, but apparently I’d just never had a truly great rendition prior to tasting Mozza’s gnocchi with duck ragù, a dish we ordered primarily because I’ll eat just about any dish with duck in it. The ragù was strong, with deep earthly flavors and small chunks of tender breast meat, but played a clear second fiddle to those little pillows of love, lighter than any potato gnocchi I’d previously tried. It’s the kind of meat-and-potatoes dish I could stand behind.
Molly ordered one of her favorite primi, the goat cheese ravioli with five lilies sauce. The pasta was as thin as I’ve ever come across in ravioli, but with good tooth thanks to strong gluten development, wrapped around a thin layer of assertive chevre-style goat cheese; those thin wrappers produce a much better pasta/filling ratio than you typically get from filled pastas. The “five lilies” sauce refers to five members of the allium family – garlic, onion, chives, scallions, and leeks – which stands up well to the tangy goat cheese.
We went with one main, the short rib braised in Barolo wine and served over a very soft, creamy polenta. I’ve never met a short rib dish I didn’t like, and the braise was perfect, producing a rib that stands up on the plate but pulls apart with no effort. If I was to criticize anything we had all night, it might be that the exterior of the short rib was on the soft side, so it might not have been seared that much (it was definitely seared at some point) before the braise. But the criticism is a bit absurd, as the dish was still a 70.
For dessert, we went with the house-made gelato, mint chip and coffee side-by-side with a giant pizzelle with a faint anise flavor. The texture was perfectly smooth, no hint of ice crystals or of extra overrun; the coffee was a little sweeter than I like my coffee ice creams (but I admit I like coffee and chocolate ice creams to be as dark as possible), while the mint chip surprised with real mint flavor – not like an extract, but like actual mint leaves, brighter, fresher, and less harsh than your typical mint-flavored ice creams. (Plus, it wasn’t green.)
We sat at one of the two bars in Osteria Mozza and, at 7 pm on a Friday, didn’t have to wait to be seated, but there were no regular tables available before 10:30 pm at that point. (I actually love sitting at the bar in restaurants, alone or with a friend; you’re rarely forgotten by your server and you often get to see a lot of what’s going on in the kitchen, or at least what’s coming out of it.) The prices are not for the faint of heart, but as I said to Molly when we left, this wasn’t so much dinner but an experience, the kind of meal you might only have a few times in your life, but one you’ll think about for weeks afterwards.