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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – PICCA CANTINA

Anticucho black cod

Peruvian food has become extremely trendy and Picca offers a riot of flavors in what, I would imagine, is a personal and modern take on Peruvian food.  Ricardo Zacate, who first opened Mo-Chica (see review) in a funky part of town, has now graced the West side with Picca Cantina, which is garnering accolades and wonderful reviews.

Let’s start with the location, on that stretch of Pico Boulevard better known for kosher establishments – the stand alone building also hosts Sotto (check out the review), the excellent Italian eatery. Upstairs, however, is a modern cantina, with an open kitchen, sleek design and sleek customers to match, the latter handled with firmness and a smile by the capable hostess.

The noise level, once the restaurant is full, is beyond any reasonable conversation but my party and I were seated in a semi private room upstairs, around a sturdy and unusually large wooden table, and we were afforded an acceptable decibel level. Our server was professional, did not feel compelled to tell us her name and steered us through both the drinks and food menu with dexterity.

And what a menu it is. The  multitude of dishes are tapas size and meant to be enjoyed family style. To try the whole menu would require many reservations and a sizable savings account but the effort would be worth it.

My only other  experience with Peruvian food came courtesy of Mo-Chica (check out the review), possibly a more down to earth version of the food Mr. Zarate cooks at Picca, so I can’t say whether  what I ate resembles anything served anywhere in Peru. To accompany the various Pisco sour cocktails we ordered, we started by nibbling on Jalea Mixta, lightly fried seafood with a tartare sauce; Chicharrones de Pollo, fried morsels of chicken with salsa criolla and Papa Rellena, a Peruvian version of a jacket potato filled with slow cooked beef and a boiled egg. All three dishes were delicious, with the first two pleasing to less adventurous palates while the Papa Rellena will never make me look at another baked potato the same way. It was that good.

Egg, in the form of fried, made an appearance on another beef dish, a sort of stew, that was also excellent but the name of which I haven’t retained. If you do see it on the menu, do not hesitate though. The Ceviche Mixto also features thinly sliced potatoes in a citrus sauce and, if you are a fan of raw fish, the albacore tuna is a must. My personal favourite was served on a wooden board: Anticucho Black Cod with crisp sweet potatoes – a beautiful presentation and the buttery flavor of cod enhanced by a slightly sweet sauce. Seco de Paxo turned out to be duck leg comfit in a black beer sauce over cilantro rice. Despite my aversion for cilantro, at that point in the evening I was game to try anything and the duck was tender, flavorful  and highly unusual. As I said, bold flavors are the trademark of this restaurant.

Not sure if the Peruvian craze will continue or if Picca and Mo-Chica will keep on being the only game in town but if you are in for something different from the usual tapas, are in a festive mood and don’t mind a sign language conversation while munching on some pitch perfect and interesting food, make a bee-line for Picca and you won’t be disappointed.

Picca, by the way, means “nibble”.

www.piccaperu.com

 

 

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – Son of a Gun

Image from vintagevectors.com

The corner of Orlando and W. 3rd St. in Los Angeles has become a happening one. If, until a few years ago, the only bright spot was Joan’s on Third, the ever popular eatery, now the swanky Churchill hotel has appeared on one corner and Magnolia Bakery, of Sex and the City fame, on the opposite. And then there’s Son of a Gun. Brought to us by Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, the masterminds behind Animal, the pair tries to do for seafood what they did for meat, i.e. make it very interesting.

With only a few concessions to a couple of salads and a chicken sandwich (which I saw coming out of the kitchen and looks fantastic, something I would actually order), the entire menu is devoted to seafood. Unfortunately, because the prices are somewhat steep, ordering the entire menu was out of the question but that was my first inclination when I read it.

The L-shaped room is not as minimalist as Animal and it’s filled with maritime memorabilia, with the shortest part of the L devoted to a long, communal table with stools. The tables are a bit too close together, easily promoting conversation with your neighbours and it might not be the right place for a romantic dinner or a first date. It’s also extremely loud. But, oh the food! Everything we picked, did not disappoint.

Most of the dishes are on the small side and it’s worth checking with the server as you might end up hungry if you only order a couple of items.

My friend and I started with poke, served nearly raw, cut in little cubes, marinated with ponzu and served with yuzu and white nectarines. Everything melted in my mouth. This is where the difference between restaurants who serve only top-notch ingredients and those who don’t becomes apparent: the freshness of the fish, the intense sweetness of the yuzu and the pitch perfect flavor of the nectarines cannot make a dish fall flat no matter how hard a chef might try.

The lobster roll, that I had noticed flying out of the kitchen while waiting, is a tiny rectangular of brioche, brushed with butter and toasted, with a slit on top filled with the lobster/mayo salad that has made this East Coast staple so famous. I could have eaten five rolls in a row without missing a beat. The octopus salad was also a standout – tender octopus, grilled and paired with mirepoix and chili.

And then it was time for the Peel and Eat Shrimp boil – half a pound of boiled shrimp served in their shells with a lime mustard sauce. Sounds uninteresting right? Half of the fun was eating with our hands and getting messy (hot serviettes and lemon wedges are provided) and the other half was seeing how such a simple dish could be brightened with the right marinade and a sauce so well-balanced I wish I could have bought a bottle to take home.

What I like about both restaurants is their integrity – only the freshest and best quality ingredients are served, with no fuss but just an apparent joy of cooking them. This means it won’t be cheap but it’s worth every morsel. On the good side, the restaurant purifies and carbonates tap water themselves – which is served in simple glass bottles with jam jars standing in for glasses – and only charges 10c a person for it. No shelling out $7 for some Scottish Highlands water in a fancy bottle.

For desserts, only a few ice-cream selections are available, probably also excellent, but I had purchased a chocolate flourless cupcake with Swiss meringue topping from Magnolia that our server was gracious enough to let us eat, even providing us with plates at no charge. Lunch service is friendly, girly and efficient.

PS – This girl is going on a well deserved 2 week vacation. Might blog occasionally but probably not, unless I can’t fight the urge. Will bring you back news, tidbits and suggestions from the motherland upon my return. Enjoy your Summer!

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EGGING ON

Photo: missalpha.wordpress.com

Please don’t think I am on a Starbucks bashing mission. I am not. I don’t love the place so I don’t patronize it but I don’t wish them ill. I recently noticed, though, that alternative coffee shops are not afraid to enter in competition with what used to be the mightiest coffee place in town. Driving around Santa Monica, I saw a bunch of high-end coffee places right across from the green mermaid, to prove that customers have become very discerning (and possibly a bit snobbish) about their coffee.

I am not on a Pain Quotidien bashing mission either. Really. But, after having had brunch at their Brentwood location (right next to Starbucks) I couldn’t help harping on how outrageously overpriced their food is.

Le Pain Quotidien, a Belgian chain, were the first to open bakeries cum restaurant spaces with a rustic look, communal tables and the idea of serving fresh and simple food, mostly organic. The pastries are in the best French tradition, their own made bread is very good and they can all be bought and brought home, together with jams, coffee and other edible and pretty packaged products.

The food is indeed good, in a simple and fresh way, especially the sandwiches made with their bread and the salads. The coffee, served in wide French bowls, is also excellent but, today, sitting at one of the long communal tables, I couldn’t help noticing that my two soft-boiled eggs, albeit organic, were priced at $7.45. Two eggs. Boiled. With the addition of two slices of rye bread and a small cafe au lait, my breakfast was nearly $15. I felt taken for a ride.

The French toast one of the other guests ordered looked appetizing and healthy, without the common addition of whipped cream and other heavy accoutrements but, even for a small eater like me, the portion looked extra small. European portions with Euro prices. And, when yet another guest asked if it was at all possible to slightly heat the pain au chocolat (you know, to moisten all that butter), he was told that it was company policy not to do that. It might be company policy but certainly not good business practice.

I work in the food industry and I am aware of the cost of food, especially organic food, and of the small margins that restaurants have to deal with. And the rent in tony Brentwood can’t be cheap. While I will gladly pay $40 for a fish or meat entrée at a good restaurant, over seven bucks for two boiled eggs is something I just can’t get over. Unless the chicken lived on her own private farm!!

 

 

 

 

 

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – BAR TOSCANA

At a time, many years ago, when the landscape of Italian restaurants in Los Angeles was, at best, desolate, Toscana stood out for the quality and authenticity of the food. Nearly two decades have passed and this Brentwood mainstay is still going strong. On a stretch of San Vicente Boulevard that has transformed itself into a sort of little Italy, so many are the Italian restaurants per square footage, Toscana is still the most discreet  and doesn’t show any signs of aging.

As its name implies, the menu is inspired by the food of Tuscany, perfectly embodied by a Fiorentina bistecca, that gigantic slab of meat that is rarely found in restaurants. But, in truth, there are dishes from all over the peninsula, including pizza.

A couple of years ago, the owners opened Bar Toscana, just across the entrance to the main restaurant, a long, rectangular room very tastefully and minimally decorated in dark browns and white. My friend and I chose to sit at the bar counter, rather than at one of the small tables or ottomans, to better view the bartender in action. The list of cocktails is eclectic in names and ingredients, with very many drinks fruit or vegetable based but the bartender will accommodate any requests and, in my case, to make a Pimms’ cup as it was intended and not according to his interpretation.

Because I am immensely boring and just cannot resist a pizza if it’s on a menu, I ordered a Margherita with buffalo mozzarella and an artichoke and arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette. I love the simplicity of Italian salads, elegantly dressed with gentle vinaigrettes that emphasize good olive oil – nothing against fancy emulsions but I am too often left with a garlic aftertaste or else the fresh vegetables are completely disguised by the dressing. What best way to have arugula than with olive oil and lemon??

The pizza is airy: the wafer thin dough is so light it melts in your mouth. The tomato sauce is delicate to better carry the fresh buffalo mozzarella, gently pooling in the center. As soon as I swallowed the last morsel, I would have been ready to have another 12” pizza (I didn’t). If pressed to find any faults, I would have preferred my crust to be slightly more charred. Oh, and the astronomical $19 price tag is not completely justified.

In addition to any dishes from the restaurant proper, the bar offers a menu of appetizing small dishes at more affordable prices.

By 8 o’clock on a Wednesday night, the bar was packed – the crowd is the Westiders one would expect, adult, well dressed, i-Phones lined up on the counter. And everyone trapped West of the 405.

http://www.toscanabrentwood.com/

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JUST SIMPLE FOOD

The more I work in a restaurant, the more I crave simple food. Fortunately, I work for a company that made local, seasonal, sustainable and organic its mantra long before it became fashionable. But as much as I enjoy 3 Michelin star restaurants, complicated dishes with seven components to them and all manner of molecular gastronomy “tricks”, I am more content with a bowl of perfectly grilled vegetables, a flaky tart, a simple pasta. Last night my meal was a hunk of good break with a chunk of Point Reyes Toma cheese. Delectable.

I have often fantasized on how a modest place of my own would look like and what it would offer. It would be a little bakery/cafe serving a community or neighbourhood, Intelligentsia coffee, rustic fruit and vegetable tarts, bowls of granola, bread fresh out of the oven, crostatas, buttery cookies, fresh salads and all the things I like to eat and make in my time off. In an age of colorful macarons and cutesy cupcakes, I imagine stark white walls and rustic food.

Funnily enough, my inspiration comes from two places I have never visited. The Rose Bakery, that started in London and then expanded to Paris, is the brainchild of an English/French couple whose cookbook is a constant source of inspiration.

Rose Bakery in rue de Martyrs

My current favourite from the Rose Bakery

And recently, my friend Sue sent me a link to the Vergennes Laundry, a bakery in Vergennes, Vermont that, not only looks very much like what I have in mind, but also serves food I would be very happy to produce on a daily basis (and their coffee of choice is Intelligentsia).

vergenneslaundry.com

So if you happen to be in Paris or Vergennes and come upon these two establishments, drop me a note and let me know if they are as good as they look. I would be prepared to bet I am right on the mark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – RIVIERA – Calabasas

There is something to be said for the successful neighbourhood restaurant, the one that stays in business forever by delivering consistent food at affordable prices, enticing the local clientele to go back over and over instead of cooking at home. It’s hard to pull it off because many of these establishments tend to become first complacent, then mediocre. The formula seems to work better in Europe, where the food is kept simple with a few changes here and there, a high level of consistency and, often, signature dishes that spark the craving.

In Los Angeles, successful neighbourhood restaurants are few and far between. Riviera in Calabasas could have the potential to become one; instead, it falls prey to pretentiousness. Then again, maybe it’s just me. After three visits, prodded by a friend who lives nearby and frequents it often, my conclusion is always the same: friendly service but pretentious food that doesn’t hit the mark served in a pretentious space.

The restaurant is located in a drab (as drab as squeaky clean Calabasas can be) mini-mall which explains the heavy draperies covering the windows, to better create an atmosphere of intimacy. Even the front door is not see-through. The bar area, with a tv and low couches, where they offer Happy Hour between  5 and 8, is starting to look dated. The two main dining rooms, with the striped chairs and matching china and the small statues around the walls, aim to offer an air of opulence. The cuisine is described as Northern Italian and the chef heads from Lake Como but by trying to elevate the dishes to some standard of modernism, they end up being funny hybrids.

Upon being seated – and noticing the chipped bread plate – my friend and I were served a couple of soggy bruschettas with flavorless tomatoes and some nice bread with a sort of pesto that was so garlicky any self-respecting vampire would have run for cover.

The entrees are all between $24 to $40 which I don’t object to paying for first-rate ingredients. The organic salmon in potato crust and lobster sauce intrigued me and that is what I ordered. When it arrived, it ended up being two nicely moist pieces of salmon encased in a potato hash that was most likely flash fried. The fish inside was good but I found myself pushing the crust aside, too heavy with oil – the accompanying baby vegetables were simply steamed; now, who still serves steamed vegetables apart from the Marriot hotels and hospitals? The lobster sauce was not terribly flavorful and the whole thing managed to wake me up at 3 am, trying to find its way down my digestive tract.

My friend’s filet mignon with a black pepper sauce was tender but otherwise uninspired and served with the same sad vegetables. We passed on desserts.

Despite my griping, on a Monday night the restaurant was pleasantly full. I still think that contemporary Italian food, prepared with less fuss and ambition would go a long way into luring patrons like me back.

www.rivieracalabasas.com

 

 

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – SOTTO

I was really looking forward to eating pizza at Sotto. Not that one would go just for the pizza – this restaurant’s menu is quite ballsy, with obscure Sardinian dishes even the most authentic Italians (like yours truly) might have a hard time recognizing. I like that, Italian restaurants that break the mold to explore all that Italian regional cuisine has to offer.

The reason why I was so looking forward to Sotto’s pizza is that a big deal was made of the wood fire oven imported from Naples, lovingly put together by Neapolitan artisans who know about the business of pizza ovens. Proper pizza cooks in under a minute in a 500F oven, slid in on a wooden board and retrieved bubbly and charred. It was a good omen.

Sotto is in a no-man’s stretch of Pico Boulevard, between Beverly and Beverwil, in a two storey building whose top is occupied by Picca, the Peruvian restaurant that has been gaining accolades of recent. Sotto means “under” or “underneath”, an apt name for the basement space that reminded me of some London flats where you would walk down from street level to enter (it was also the former home of “The Tasting Kitchen”). The long rectangular space is simple, elegant and rustic, with banquettes along the walls, wooden tables with no tablecloth and a large communal table in the center from which to see the action in the kitchen (and the famous oven.

The hostess promptly seated me even if the rest of the party hadn’t arrived yet, which gave me time to study the menu and the array of funky and inspiring cocktails.

What you simply must order is the house made bread: thick, crusty and cut into large slabs, it’s finished on the grill (or in the oven), giving it a slightly charred and wonderful taste. It’s served with either butter, olive oil or lard (which I was dying to order but for my arteries’s sake I passed on).

As an appetizer, the sardines did not disappoint. Interestingly rolled around fennel and pine nuts, they were flavourful, perfectly cooked and I could have kept on eating them as an entrée. The spicy clams with beans and ‘nduja sausage were also very good: fresh and barely steamed, they had a melt in your mouth quality and they perfectly married with the heavier broth which, to better mop it up, came armed with a thick slice of the above mentioned bread.

And then there was my Pizza Margherita. The good news is that the crust was charred the way the Neapolitan gods intended it to be; the sauce was good and not too plentiful and the fresh mozzarella as top-notch as I expected. Now, Neapolitan pizza, unlike the Roman one, is thicker at the edges and thin and soggy in the center. I can see how this version tries to replicate the original but the dough lacked the softness of the hundreds of pizzas I have had in Naples – it was just a bit too chewy. I still think Olio makes a better one.

Still, I would definitely go back. The two chefs behind Sotto have a very respectable background in Italian food: Zach Pollach worked, amongst many others, at my mother’s favourite restaurant, the 2 Michelin star Ambasciata near Ferrara. Steve Samson apprenticed, amongst others, at Valentino and other Piero Selvaggio’s establishments. They both clearly know their Italian food.

Next time I would like to try some of the Sardinian offerings or the Fusilli with Squid Ink which, I am told, are delicious. Coffee, served in the brown ceramic cups that are ubiquitous in many Italian coffee shops, was outstanding.

www.sottorestaurant.com

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EATING FOR A LIVING

Pity the poor food critic. Paid to eat out day and night for days on end, and then write about it. When I scour the internet reading other people’s blogs, I am always amazed at how many express an interest in becoming a food critic. I, on the other end, couldn’t think of a worst profession.

Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer prize winner who wrote for many years for the  “L.A. Weekly” and currently for the LA Times, said in an interview that 99% of his meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – are consumed out. A distinguished critic, before writing a review, will visit an establishment a number of times, to sample most of the menu and its consistency, in both food and service.

Frank Bruni, who was the NY Times food critic for five years, recently wrote in his blog about being diagnosed with gout. I always associated gout with King Henry VIII and wasn’t even aware it still existed. But it does, and it’s an inflammation of the joints, most often of the lower limbs, triggered by heavy consumption of red meat, alcohol and animal organs. You can see why Henry VIII was a long time sufferer.

Mr. Bruni was asked to cut back on all of the above, a minor sacrifice you might think, but not if those are some of your favourite food items.

Eating and drinking in such copious amounts is by no means my idea of fun. I could only stomach a “food critic” type of meal once a week. Maybe. The thought of having to eat, even if well and lavishly, for a living, makes me shudder and now food critics are finally coming out about the health dangers such a life subjects them to. Mr. Bruni is certainly not the first. Ruth Reichl also admitted to not being able to sustain such eating habits.

We have come to worship at the altar of famous chefs and think nothing of making reservations months in advance for a new restaurant that has received however many stars from whatever critic. But no matter how first-rate, or local, or organic, or sustainable the ingredients are, the reality of a restaurant meal will always factor in a sodium and fat intake we would never find acceptable if cooking at home. I know, because I work in a restaurant and lord knows how many times I said “It needs more salt” to bring out some flavor or haven’t batted an eyelid to the lavish amount of butter that goes into certain dishes.

Far from preaching giving up all the foods  that have shown correlation to heart disease, cancer or, as it happens, gout, I choose to indulge in such meals only once in a blue moon. Even if I could get paid to eat lavishly and write about it, I think I would miss my nightly bowl of cereal way too much….

 

 

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – PITFIRE PIZZA

With four locations in Los Angeles (North Hollywood, Culver City, West LA and Downtown), it’s strange I never ventured into Pitfire Pizza before. Even Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold wrote that Pitfire Pizza is a neighbourhood gem, with good, affordable food if not THE best pizza in the world.

The founders of Pitfire Pizza had in mind a sort of fast food place with high quality ingredients, wood burning ovens for great pizza and a neighbourhood atmosphere. Last night I ventured into the Culver City location which, incidentally, won an architectural award in the recent past. Between Marina del Rey and Culver City on Washington Boulevard, the warehouse-like space is built in the industrial style so popular these days: cement floors, exposed ceiling, spare tables and booths. Orders are placed at the register, with the food swiftly delivered by welcoming and competent serving staff.

I was there for pizza (you know, my never-ending quest) so I left alone the portion of the menu filled with salads, Panini and pastas. But a word about the ingredients first. Pitfire Pizza put their money where their mouth is: cheese is from an artisanal maker in Wisconsin, the mozzarella is made locally, meats and sausages are from Zoe’s in SF and a small producer from the Fairfax Farmer’s Market respectively and vegetables are seasonal and local. The pizza toppings are bit too involved for my tastes – I can’t go past 3 ingredients on my pie, and the combinations of cheeses, nuts, vegetables and meats the chef(s) came up with seemed a touch too heavy. But you can build your own pizza, simply on a base of mozzarella and tomato sauce.

My friend and I ordered a basic Margherita and a pizza with burrata, caramelized onions, arugula, hazelnuts and a drizzle of pesto (see what I mean? and that is the lightest of the bunch). The verdict? A far cry from my idea of perfect pizza is, the crust is a bit too doughy but nicely charred at the edges. The tomato sauce is average but the mozzarella and the burrata are excellent. Because a Margherita shines only if the three main components are outstanding (crust, sauce and mozzarella), this one fell a bit flat. The other pie was much better: the onions nicely caramelized, the arugula fresh and peppery and the hazelnuts a surprisingly good addition.

Despite being a very informal place, more than one server came by our table to ask if everything was fine and if we liked the food, and they offered to get us more drinks. Finally, a word on the beers – aside from all the usual bottled offerings, Pitfire offers lovely micro-brews on tap.

Soon the line of people waiting to order was reaching outside the door, with no letting up as time went by. The goal of becoming a neighbourhood place that serves high quality fast food has clearly been achieved. It might not be the very best pizza in town but it’s certainly many steps above the majority of pizza joints in LA.

For menus and locations click here

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ADVENTURES IN LALA LAND – LA VILLETTA

Chez Mimi was a Brentwood fixture for over a decade, a charming French restaurant in a Spanish colonial building just across from the Country Mart, with one of the nicest patios in town. Then, like all good things, it came to an end an it resurfaced as La Villetta, yet another Italian restaurant in Brentwood (at least it’s not on that stretch of San Vicente where they all seem to be).

The building, a historical landmark, underwent an extensive renovation but it managed to retain the charm of Chez Mimi combined with much contemporary features. The patio  is still where one wants to be and, even on a chilly evening, this indoor courtyard is kept warm by amazing conical heat lamps that give you the impression of being inside.

Antonio De Cicco, who was manager at Toscana just down the road, for many years, ably manages the room. On a Saturday night, he is a welcome and warm presence, touching every table, chatting with regular and new clients alike, making everybody feel special. When La Villetta opened, the head chef was Pippa Calland, of “Chopped” fame, who has now been replaced by Dylan Hallas.

The menu is not particularly innovative but does stray somewhat from the typical Italian fare: the artichoke salad features pine nuts and manchego and the beet salad is complimented by endive, candied walnuts and apples –  they are nothing to write home about but pleasant enough. The pizzas are probably one of the best choices – two brothers from Naples are back in the kitchen stretching the dough and sliding it into the wood burning oven and the end result is an excellent pizza, Neapolitan style, with a slightly soft dough, charred edges and fresh buffalo mozzarella on top. Delicious!

The fish dishes such as the cod with olives and tomatoes or the grilled salmon, if not extremely creative, are fresh and well executed. The short ribs are tender but the pasta falls short. The special ravioli with eggplant, ricotta and walnuts are gooey, the sheets of pasta too thick and the tomato reduction far too similar to any canned tomato paste.

Desserts veer from the ubiquitous tiramisu to a rum baba, heavy on the rum and filled with whipped cream. The fruit tart is uninspired and the mille feuilles a touch too heavy. Still, the place is so charming that everyone seems to have a good time and I could go back just for a pizza and a beer. And a pretend it was another Sunday night back in Milan..

For address and menu, click here

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