Intriguing Italian on Pier Avenue [restaurant review]
Parisian Vincent Deshayes’ menu is rooted in Rome
Once in awhile I get reminded that the logical explanation for something is often wrong. Consider what you might think of a restaurant named Casa Vincenzo with your sole starting point being that it is an Italian restaurant owned by a Frenchman.
Since Italy and France share a border that is over 300 miles long, it’s logical to expect that some Frenchman who grew up in Cannes, Nice, Chamonix, or other town near the line came here to cook the cuisine common to both countries. Perhaps that chef-owner was even of Italian heritage himself, as might be suggested by the name Casa Vincenzo.
Instead owner Vincent Deshayes is from Paris and ran Italian restaurants there, and the menu owes more to Rome than Turin, Genoa, or the other regions on the border with France. The chef is also French and from Aix-en-Provence, but you wouldn’t know it from his cooking.
The space has been transformed from the days when this was Buona Vita. It now feels like an upscale café in some rustic Italian village. The menu is short but interesting, with some items that are evidently house creations and one that is puzzling – “Chicken Nastary.” It’s not an item I have seen anywhere else, and the servers didn’t know why this pasta with chicken, mushrooms, penne, and pink sauce bears this name.
We ordered sea bream tartare to nibble while making up our minds. This is usually served as thin sheets of fish with toppings so we were surprised by a timbale of fish chunks in a dressing of fresh basil, chopped olive, and lemon juice. The seafood was served atop bread over pieces of arugula, a pretty presentation that gave some contrasting textures to the fish. I usually prefer to have the condiments separate so I can sort through the flavors myself, but I enjoyed this on its merits.
By the time we had finished the bream and glasses of fruity Friulano we knew what we wanted, so we ordered a shrimp salad as a shared starter, to be followed by linguini gamberoni, spaghetti carbonara, and pork chop with gorgonzola sauce. At the last moment we decided to also get polenta fries as a side, because one of my companions had never tried them before.
The salad arrived quickly, a concoction of sautéed prawns tossed with artichoke pieces, tomato, greens, and chopped pickles with a pesto vinaigrette. The sweetness of the tomato and richness of the shrimp was superbly balanced with the slight pickle tartness. The only thing I would change is the croutons, which were massive torn slices of Italian bread. I’d have preferred them crisped and smaller, but that’s a minor quibble.
Our main courses arrived just as we finished the salad, and you could tell from the look and scent that they had a French sensibility. The tomato sauce on the shrimp pasta was very light and delicate, and a ring of pesto around the bowl was for practical use rather than just decoration. I liked it both with and without mixing, and the forkfuls with a dash of pesto had a bit more robust herb and garlic flavor. This might not be for those who prefer robust Italian-American variations, but it’s true to Northern Italian sensibilities.
The carbonara departed from tradition entirely. This dish is usually made with pancetta or bacon that is quickly fried and mixed into the hot pasta with a cream and cheese sauce and an egg to create a silky richness. This sauce had that silky creaminess nailed, but the rolled pancetta was in large pieces that had been sliced very thin but hadn’t been crisped. It was topped with sprigs of chopped arugula and bits of fragrant Romano cheese. This made a beautiful dinner but one that was a bit unwieldy because the meat had to be cut , which is easier when it’s not in pasta. The great initial impression and the rich flavor of the result made it worth the trouble.
The pork with gorgonzola had the most distinct French influence. The slightly smoky, tender meat with funky, rich cheese sauce over truffled potatoes had depth and subtlety that reminded me of Paris. My wife is always suspicious of items with truffle oil because that flavor is often overdone, but she agreed that this time the cheese sauce and mushroomy truffles were perfectly paired. We liked that sauce so much that we ordered additional bread to capture every bit of it.
The polenta fries weren’t essential to the meal because the main courses were decently sized, but they did add to the enjoyment. The deep-fried corn cakes with a cheesy dipping sauce would make a great starter, and I’ll probably order them in that sequence next time.
As we were in an Italo-French restaurant we ordered one Italian wine, a Collavini Refosco, and one French, a Ducasse Bordeaux. I knew I liked the Bordeaux from previous tastings but the Refosco was a welcome new experience, a bright, fresh red with a hint of cherry and some mineral finish. It’s twelve bucks a glass, and after you try one you may find yourself shopping for it to enjoy at home.
The biggest surprise of our meal was the dessert, a tiramisu made with a type of Belgian cookie called Biscoff rather than the traditional ladyfingers. Biscoffs have a caramel flavor and are usually an accompaniment to coffee, so their inclusion in a dessert that is sprinkled with espresso powder makes sense. It does radically change the flavor and texture of the dessert, and though I prefer the original, I’m glad we tried this.
Dinner for three with a glass of wine each ran $154, appropriate for this level of cooking in the Beach Cities. Casa Vincenzo offers a quirky, very European experience that is not quite like anyplace else in the area.
Casa Vincenzo is at 439 Pier Avenue in Hermosa. Open Mon-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sun. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Street parking only. Beer and wine served, corkage $10. Menu at casa-vincenzo.com, phone 310-379-7626. ER
by Richard Foss