I’m usually good for one Dine LA meal whenever restaurant week invades Los Angeles, but this time around I was ready to pass. That is, until I came across the Instagram posts of fellow food lovers @kungfoodpanda and @limer35 from a meal they had at Santa Monica’s La Vecchia Cucina. Off the strength of their pictures I booked a next-day reservation and drove west to plunk down the $35 for three courses. Being that it was DineLA and all, I tried to keep my expectations in check, knowing that. With Chef Mark Mollica at the helm since 2006 (his brother Anthony is the GM), the restaurant of over 20 years has continued its course as a neighborhood mainstay known for good Italian food in Santa Monica. I was eager to see if the food coming out of Chef Mollica’s kithcen tasted as good as it looked on Instagram.
Insalata di Burrata | Heirloom tomatoes, fresh burrata cheese, prosciutto di Parma, Italian extra virgin olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, sea salt and fresh basil
The straightforward salad centered around sweet heirloom tomatoes and soft, creamy burrata cheese. The salty slices of prosciutto tucked underneath certainly added some value to the dish, but otherwise a very standard insalata.
Capriccio Imperiale | Chilled seafood salad with lobster, shrimp, calamari and haricot verts tossed in an Italian extra virgin olive oil lemon dressing
Our other appetizer was a cold salad comprised of two medium-sized shrimp, some scarce bits of lobster, calamari rings and bodies, and green beans. The citrus-laced olive oil dressing was bright and acidic, making for a very simple, refreshing first course.
Gnocchi ai Funghi Porcini e Vitello con Tartufo | House made gnocchi, porcini mushrooms cream sauce with sauteed veal and fresh shaved Italian black winter truffles
Moving on to the entrees, pillowy house made gnocchi arrived under a serious blanket of shaved truffles. The mushroom and veal cream sauce was a tad sweet, but really worked well with the earthiness of the black truffles. This dish on the regular menu hits for a cool $50, making it a certified steal as part of the $35 DineLA menu.
Branzino al Forno | Oven broiled striped bass in an extra virgin olive oil lemon herb sauce
A simple preparation of oven broiled branzino was a real winner. The fish was perfect – firm and moist – and accentuated by the olive oil herb sauce. The accompanying veggies were nice and tender, resulting in a healthy, tasty plate. Nothing extraordinary by any means, but certainly well-executed.
Panna Cotta | Vanilla bean panna cotta topped with raspberry coulis and fresh berries
The panna cotta was very enjoyable, if anything a touch too sweet from the raspberry sauce. Flecked with vanilla beans, it was cold and lush, it’s smooth texture melting as soon as it meets the mouth.
Tiramisu | Classic lady finger cookies soaked in espresso and layered with mascarpone pastry cream
I’m not sure what happened with the final dessert, but the espresso element completely overwhelmed this classic Italian item. Even as a non-coffee drinker I generally enjoy the dark, bitter flavors when used in cooking, but here it was simply too much for me.
Inevitably, DineLA always skews my opinion of a restaurant, especially when I haven’t experienced the menu or food on a normal night. In this case, I felt like the cooking in general tended to err on the safe side; good enough, but certainly not wow-worthy. The standout dish was unquestionably the gnocchi, it’s sweet, veal cream sauce balancing out the fragrant truffles, and also proving to be a real steal compared to its regular price. I don’t know how likely a return visit will be given plenty of other westside restaurants I’ve yet to try, but there were definitely glimpses during my meal at La Vecchia that indicate there’s more to the restaurant than can be expressed in one condensed experience.
La Vecchia Cucina
2654 Main St
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Dine date: Wed 1.29.14, 7:30p