The dearth of decent Italian restaurants in Los Angeles doesn't need any more elaboration. Instead of complaining about the local situation with Italian and simple French bistros, I just shut up and cook Italian at home (less so French). And then save occasional dinners out for pizza at Angeli or lasagna bolognese at Angelini.
But finally I got over my skepticism and tried La Buca on Melrose. This sweet neighborhood spot has plenty of mentions, so I'm not pretending it's a find or some super obscure hole-in-the-wall. Literally speaking though, it is really damn tiny. I think I counted 20 seats max last night. I also like Aroma in Silver Lake well enough; still, it's all stuff I'd just as soon cook myself and we haven't been back since one good if not outstanding dinner.
After several recent visits to La Buca I can best vouch for a few dishes. Starting with the Insalata Riccardo, which includes chopped raddichio, walnuts, Grana Padano, and green apple. It's a huge platter and perfect for sharing. In Italian restaurants I oddly adopt American habits and eat salad before the meal, which I don't do at home. (I guess I don't want to come off as That Person who asks for salad later. What a nonsense neurosis, since there are plenty of other things I will request.)
Basics like the pedestrian pounded chicken breast special with rosemary and lemon is a good slab of well-prepared protein. Burro salvia is richly sage-y. Large gnocchi are soft and luxurious, like the edible equivalent of a lovely goose down pillow. With burro salvia, the starchy elements contrast with herbal intensity for an incredible sensory experience. I haven't tried the pizza.
Sadly, my praise stops when we get to tomato-based sauces. Pomodoro e basilico with no basil to be found paired with gnocchi (pictured above) and Amatriciana sauces come from the school of Italo-Americano "gravy." Rather than chopped and reduced, tomatoes are pureed � a method that results in a wet, goopy sauce that just slips off rather than coats La Buca's fine handmade pasta and gnocchi. And the sauce doesn't swing 'cause it ain't got that tomato tang. I don't doubt they use pancetta (maybe guanciale is hard to find here), yet the Amatriciana is still too smoky and bacony in the American bacon sense. Sorry to pat myself on the back, but when we cook Amatriciana at home there's a pool of oil commingling with melted pork fat and tiny San Marzano bits at the bottom of the bowl to wipe up when the bucatini is all gone. Marcella's recipe is closer to versions I've loved at modest eateries in Rome (though nowhere near as good, obviously), even if I make it without guanciale.
With friendly guys who indulge my wanting to speak rusty Italian, proximity to our nabe, and the always welcome BYOB policy, weeknight dinners at La Buca never fail to be fun and satisfying. Especially if you can get out of that sweltering room before closing time at Pazzo Gelato.
Osteria La Buca
5210 1/2 Melrose Ave. (at Wilton)
Los Angeles 90038