Hostaria Piave delicately and deliciously brings the flavors of Venice to Redondo Beach [RESTAURANT REVIEW]
If you know only one thing about Tuscany, it’s probably the food; if you know only one thing about Venice, it probably isn’t. Therein lies a problem for boosters of the cuisine of northeastern Italy; their cuisine is less known and harder to describe. Venice was once called the Queen of Cities and was the trading port at the European end of the spice road, and those exotic ingredients were used with subtlety and skill. Seafood is prominent, as might be expected from a city of interconnected islands, but mainland areas controlled by Venice provide plenty of meats, cheeses, and vegetables.
The South Bay’s newest Venetian-style restaurant is Hostaria Piave, named after a river that once served as a route for fresh produce to reach the city. The stylish restaurant is decorated with Venetian carnival masks, oil paintings, and row after row of wine bottles – a fitting environment for a place so focused on art, food, and celebration. It’s like a Venetian cultural center in Redondo, and that fits the pattern of owner Angelo Calderan, who earned an enviable reputation for authenticity at Toluca Lake’s Ca Del Sole.
The menu assumes you are more familiar with this cuisine than most people are likely to be – there is a lot more going on here than the descriptions might suggest. For instance, the item described as “radicchio, mushrooms, chestnuts, asiago fondue” is actually radicchio and prosciutto rolled around a chestnut and mushroom mix, roasted and topped with cheese. It’s a fantastic combination that would have never occurred to me, and I strongly recommend trying it, but we had ordered it at first thinking it was vegetarian. If you have any food allergies, talk with your server before you order. Then again, talking with your server is a great idea here anyway – everyone that we have spoken with has had exceptional knowledge of the cuisine.
We followed our servers’ recommendations on two visits and tried several items we might not have ordered. The bean and mussel soup is one example, a flavorful seafood stock with carrots providing a vegetable sweetness. Rustic peasant dishes like these are balanced with more refined items like the “Antipasto di Laguna,” a composed platter that changes based on what is in season. When we tried it the selections were creamed codfish mousse on grilled polenta, marinated shrimp paste on crostini with mushroom and basil, marinated fresh sardines with onions and peppercorns, an octopus salad, and anchovies with dill. At $13 for sharing portions for two, this was a steal. There were wide contrasts – if the sharpness of the onion-peppercorn relish over the sardines got too intense, you could move to something creamy and subtle like the crostini. With the exception of those sardines, which were a bit sharp for my taste, I could have had a larger portion of any of these and called it a fine starter – tasting them all at once was a parade of sensations that is hard to beat.
Owner Angelo was very helpful with suggesting wine pairings from the mainly Italian list, in this case suggesting a small pitcher of 2009 Pala Vermentino from Sardinia. I’m not an expert on Italian wines and probably wouldn’t have selected this crisp, fruity white, but it turned out to be an elegant companion to the seafood. It was modestly priced, too – $10 for a quartino, about two four-ounce glasses.
Venetians traditionally follow their starters with a small portion of pasta before moving on to a main course. (It confuses some people that this is called a Primi, meaning first, even when it is eaten second, and that the main course called a Secondi is eaten third.) This tradition of small portions of pasta has bewildered those people who don’t understand that Venetians don’t eat big portions of pasta – these aren’t main courses, and they aren’t priced or portioned like it.
One of the must-have items is pasta with sardines, breadcrumbs, garlic, and olive oil, which sounds so simple you wonder if it could be very interesting. It’s a delightful dish, the sharp flavors of garlic and seafood continually teasing the palate. A special of venison ragu with ribbon pasta was good in a different way, the tender deer meat in an intense stock that had hints of nutmeg or allspice. I also appreciated gnocchi with braised duck leg, tiny pillows of potato flour noodle in a sauce with celery, carrots, marjoram, and red wine. I rarely order gnocchi because it is usually too heavy – this small portion of very fluffy pasta was a welcome exception.
Our main courses on one visit were braised cuttlefish over soft polenta, breaded lamb chops with peas, and roasted whole boneless chicken with lemon, garlic, and rosemary. I had questioned the person who ordered the chicken – with the more exotic items on the menu, did she really want something so simple, and in such a huge portion? Silly me. The bird was more a game hen than a chicken, an ample but not overwhelming portion, and it was delicious and as tender as any fowl I can remember having. The lamb was a bit less impressive on the plate, the three breaded chops looking lonely on the plate next to a small mound of peas. The chops had a crisp, savory breading, and were intensely meaty, a nice pairing with the peas lightly cooked with mint. If we hadn’t had the starter and pasta this portion would have been too small, but within the context of the meal it was appropriate.
I had ordered the cuttlefish because it was such a quintessentially Venetian dish, an item rarely found elsewhere in the area. The cousin to the octopus can be very tough if cooked wrong and can have an assertive flavor, but that strong character was an asset in this slow-cooked stew. The rich tomato-based sauce had sweetness to balance the musky flavor of cuttlefish, the polenta it was served over a canvas for those vivid flavors. Not everybody will like this dish, but if you want to try an authentic Adriatic flavor, you must try it.
On our second visit, two of us decided to split another regional specialty that sounds more American than Italian – roasted turkey breast with chestnut sauce and potatoes, along with a side of Swiss chard with onions and nutmeg. Turkeys were imported from America over a hundred years ago and are a staple food in the Veneto and neighboring Croatia, and in both places the preparation is not far removed from what we expect around Thanksgiving. At Hostaria Piave the gravy had a fuller herbal flavor than you find around most American tables, and the breast is of a young bird rather than the tough old beasts valued for their size rather than flavor. It was excellent roasted turkey, true to the tradition, and will likely satisfy even people expecting something more exotic. The chard we ordered on the side supplied just the right Italian touch and was an excellent counterpoint. The vegetable had been slow-cooked to the texture of spinach with just a hint of nutmeg, and it transformed it – my wife usually tolerates chard rather than enjoys it, but she enthusiastically consumed her portion and eyed mine.
A quartino of Valpolicella had gone nicely with the turkey, and was a surprisingly good counterpoint to our dessert that evening, a chocolate pear torte that had been made in-house. It wasn’t quite what I had been expecting, having misheard it as tart and therefore expecting a biscuit crust, but the balance of sweet and chocolatey cake-like richness was very nicely handled.
Hostaria Piave is reasonably priced for the experience – on one visit the bill for two was $95 with wine and dessert, on another visit $130 for three. For a meal of this authenticity and quality, served by pros who know their business, it’s a modest price to pay.
Hostaria Piave is at 231 South Pacific Coast Highway – open daily except Sunday for lunch and dinner. Parking in adjacent lot, full bar, outdoor dining, wheelchair access good. Website at hostariapiave.com, phone 310-374-1000.