RESTAURANT REVIEW – Cal-Ital star in the making
Lou’s on the Hill innovative blending of Italian and Californian cuisines promises to make it the area’s newest destination restaurant
When you’re considering a restaurant for a special occasion, the character is at least as much a factor as what they serve. We all can think of a place we don’t visit because the food is good but the staff are cold or unfriendly, and also the mediocre place we keep visiting because people there make us feel so welcome. The design is important too – a space where the cuisine and the décor are in harmony draws us in, offers a taste of another country or culture in the setting in which we most appreciate it.
Lou’s on the Hill was obviously crafted by a team that understands hospitality – the big room has a modern clubby style, and the staff are pros who know their craft. Namesake owner and bandleader Lou Giovanetti contributes with more than just his presence as genial host – he performs on some weekends and invites celebrated soloists.
Lou and his wife Grace are partners in the restaurant and met at an old school Italian restaurant where he worked between acting gigs. One might therefore expect their eatery would serve Italian classics with East Coast flair. There are some standards on the menu, but they’re executed in modern style by chef Eric Mickle, who refers to his food as “innovative Cal-Ital cuisine.” Mickle has an impressive resume, having cooked with Michael Mina and Gordon Ramsay. One might expect marvels from this kitchen, and he mostly delivers, though some things still need adjustment.
Our first experience was at dinner, and our server made a good impression both by knowing the menu and being willing to ask the chef when we had a question he couldn’t answer. He mentioned that the portions were “on the small side” and suggested that we order several starters. We narrowed it down to fritto misto, grilled lamb ribs in agrodolce sauce, braised octopus, and Caesar salad as an intermezzo.
We chose cocktails from a list that includes near-prehistoric offerings – they offer a Sherry Cobbler, popular as early as 1810, and a Daisy, the hit of the 1870’s. Try either of these and you’ll wonder why they went out of style, because they’re delightful and refreshing. Lou’s also serves a house cocktail called the Zamperini, a mix of white vermouth, grenadine, and Prosecco, which was also a winner. The bar program here is startlingly good, and sets Lou’s apart from other restaurants on the hill.
We had asked for the hot starters to be served first and they arrived after a slightly longer wait than anticipated. The fritto misto – Italian-style breaded and fried vegetables – was a small portion for thirteen dollars, but the zucchini, eggplant, and cauliflower arrived crisp and greaseless with a garlic, anchovy, and champagne vinaigrette dip that elevated it to something special. The lamb ribs were even better, thanks to a delicate hint of woodsmoke and the sweet and sour sauce made with pomegranate juice, citrus and vinegar. These were a hit, and I could have happily had a plate of them as a main course.
I also liked the octopus, though it wasn’t what i anticipated. It’s listed as a grilled item on the menu, so I expected the octopus would have spent some time on the fire before being added to the mix of borlotti beans and tomatoes. The dish of octopus, beans, and chunks of Spanish-style chorizo braised in delicate herbed tomato sauce was fine on its own merits, but the menu should make clear what this dish is.
The Caesar was another surprise. I enjoy the classic, which doesn’t include either a hard-boiled egg or pieces of dried olive, and is tossed rather than served as spears of romaine topped by other ingredients. Despite all its eccentricities it was recognizably a Caesar, and a good one.
As we nibbled our appetizers we selected drinks for the main course – as good as the cocktails were, Italian food is best with wine. The very good by-the-glass selection is split about evenly between Italy and California, and there are library selections by the bottle.
For our main courses we chose two pastas – house-made pumpkin agnolotti and mixed squash spaghetti – and a whole fish called an orata. Orata is a Mediterranean fish with a rich, meaty flavor, and using it rather than something flavorless like tilapia shows that they value good ingredients. Oratas aren’t big fish, but this had enough meat on it to be a sizeable entrée. That’s good because all that came with it was an edible garland of apple-fennel slaw – tasty and a good flavor match, but there wasn’t much of it. A dab of polenta or mushrooms, something to provide an additional flavor, would have rounded out the plate and made this more worth the $39 price tag.
The pastas were remarkably good, the squash spaghetti ornamented with fresh fava beans because they happened to be in season. The simple sauce of butter and sage showed off top quality ingredients, and a dusting of good parmesan helped matters along. The agnolotti – a thin-skinned ravioli – were filled with roasted pumpkin instead of simple pumpkin puree, and the walnut pesto sauce with aged vinegar added to the subtlety and richness. The portion was a bit on the small side, more California contemporary than Italian abundance.
The desserts straddled California and Italy, and we decided on a buttermilk panna cotta with huckleberries, and cannoli with a cocoa shell. I’ve had cannoli with chocolate chips in them and other variations, but this version with an exquisitely crisp rolled cookie filled with a luscious mascarpone and cream mix was among the best I’ve had. I’m not usually a fan of panna cotta because it’s often just bland and sweet. Here the buttermilk added body and flavor, and made the tart berries stand out more by comparison. A fine selection of Italian liqueurs and moscato were available to linger over, and if you’ve never tried an amaro after a sweet dessert this is a great place to experiment.
Our food for three ran $165, the beverages another hundred, making this something other than an everyday meal. Lou’s has a lot going for it, starting with the crack team at the front of the house and a chef with genuine talent. They can continue as they are and be a special occasion dinner restaurant, or bump up the portion sizes and lower the starter prices to encourage more frequent visits. There aren’t many places in this area with sophistication and style, and Lou’s on the Hill has all the makings of a destination restaurant.
Lou’s on the Hill is at 24590 Hawthorne Boulevard in Torrance. Parking in lot, entrance north of the restaurant, or valet parking weekend evenings. Open Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Sat 5:30 p.m. – 11 p.m., closed Sun. Full bar, corkage $25. Wheelchair access via elevator, call for details. Some vegetarian/vegan items.