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RivaBella: Superb Italian Eatery With a Great Chef

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The Man - Gino Angelini

The Man, Gino Angelini, exec chef at the new restaurant.

RivaBella (9201 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood (310) 278-2060) is where the old Hamburger Hamlet used to be, at the entrance to Beverly Hills. The Innovative Dining Group guys who brought us Boa, Katana, Sushi Roku and many others, took over the location and have created a breathtakingly beautiful Tuscan farmhouse restaurant, with live olive trees, high retractable see-through ceiling, fireplaces, and comfortable banquettes. In mid-May they will also be opening an upscale Chinese restaurant, Chi-Lin, next door (and I plan to be there on opening night).

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What makes this new Italian eatery so interesting to me is that its executive chef is one of the best Italian chefs in the city (if not the country). The Rimini-born Gino Angelini is a master magician in the kitchen, one who had worked in various top European hotels before coming here to cook with Mauro Vincenti at downtown's Rex Il Ristorante in the late '90s, then helped Mauro's widow at her Vincenti before opening his own small, exclusive and amazing Angelini Osteria on Beverly Blvd. which still remains very operational under his charming wife Elizabeth.

Frankly, I was surprised he took the top toque spot with the new place and asked him why, when he had a successful spot of his own. He explained that he felt he needed a new challenge, and when the IDG guys offered him the opportunity, he enthusiastically said yes. I have held off reviewing RivaBella until now because I wanted to give them time to get up and running, but a few recent meals have revealed a smoothly run, very enjoyable operation.

the legendary Nonna Lasagna

The legendary Nonna Elvira Lasagna.

I have written here on Huffington about my passion for Gino's lasagna, which he brings in huge pans to every major food charity event. (And I always ask for the crispy corner portion.) It is the Lasagna Nonna Elvira ($17) on the menu, layers of spinach pasta with meat sauce and silky béchamel. Oh, my, so delicious! What knocks me out about the food at RivaBella is that it is authentic Italian, the dishes you would find in the best restaurants in Florence or Milan unfiltered with faux-American sensibilities. All of the dishes on the menu are described first in Italian, then in English, although I am sticking with the latter for now. You can start with a pizza while perusing the menu, but it will be a thin-crusted pie with asparagus, quail egg and Parmesan cheese ($22), or one with porcini mushrooms and gorganzola cheese ($28). Last night I had a starter of Chicken Liver Pate with marinated cannellini beans ($14), followed by perfect Vitello Tonnato ($16), thin slices of veal carpaccio with tuna sauce... a memory of Romagna. We had an antipasti plate of rich Eggplant Parmigiana ($16) but I was more interested in Fried Mussels with beer sauce ($14), a different take on this mollusk. My date relished her starter of Smoked Scamora Cheese with grilled vegetables ($16). Yet to be tried is the Tuna Tartar ($16) with avocado, melon and pistachio.

swordfish appetizer

Swordfish appetizer

octopus salad

Octopus Salad

interior

The tasteful interior of the Tuscan-style restaurant

Last week Steve Shulman and I split a starter of Roasted Octopus Salad ($22) with potatoes, Taggiasche olives, and salsa verde. The crustacean's tendrils were grilled to a nice char, tender and tasty. Want a delicious one-of-a-kind experience... order the Lobster Salad Sardinian style ($22). There are a dozen pastas on order each evening, and I seem to always end up with a selection of three or four for sharing...but always ask for them to be placed on separate plates. I'm a sucker for anything with sea urchin, so the Linguini with Sea Urchin Sauce ($22) is a given, as is the Spaghettini with Clams, Rapini and White Wine ($18). Strozzapreti (don't you love that word) comes with shrimp, tomato and spinach ($20) and I have become a big fan of the Spinach Pappardelle with rich Lamb Ragout and Mint ($18). More hearty yet is the Spaghetti with Truffle and Sausage ($18), and his risottos are made just perfectly with arborio rice... try the one with sunchokes and peas ($18).

grilled branzino with spinach

Grilled branzino filets with sauteed spinach.

Apart from the legendary lasagna, my favorite dish from Gino's repertoire is Grilled Lamb Chops ($38) served with buttery mashed potatoes and the perfect accompaniment, sauteed mixed mushrooms. Talk about satisfying lusciousness, that's the one! I'm a stickler for how my fish is cooked, never too long or too dry, and Gino knows how to do it to perfection... the Grilled Branzino Filet ($34) is the way to go here, served with sautéed spinach (just a touch of garlic) napped with what he calls 'Sicilian sauce.' Swordfish ($32) is pan-fried with creamed spinach in a red wine sauce... yes, Gino says that a red wine sauce is the perfect accompaniment to a thick, meaty fish steak like this.

fried mussels with beer batter

Fried mussels with a beer batter.

As an alternative to the usual salmon, go for the Artic Char ($36), a tasty fish which is roasted over wood in the oven and served with a pink peppercorn sauce. I have yet to have the Roasted Maine Lobster Tail ($48) served in a tomato white wine broth... it just seems bit extravagant to spend that kind of money on a lobster tail. Not when you can order a Veal Chop ($40) in the style of Milan, which means it is lightly breaded and quickly sautéed 'til juicy rare. Everyone knows that the test of a great chef is how he roasts a chicken, and over the years I've found that Gino has a magic way with all fowl, so the Half Roasted Chicken ($32) with roasted potatoes will be as good as it gets... although if the Duck Breast is on the menu, it would be a toss-up which to go for. (I always ask him to cook it extra rare and he always tosses his head with its ever-present red cap, and in his shy, self-deprecating way, smiles and says yes.)

Osso buco with Milan-style risotto

Osso buco with Milan-style risotto.

The wood-fired oven provides the intense heat for a Grilled Porterhouse Steak for two ($88), which he sprinkles with sea salt as it leaves the kitchen. Brought over from his small osteria is the popular Osso Buco ($37), the marrow-rich bone served with risotto and lemony gremolata. At lunch they serve a few Panini, the sandwiches served on just-baked bread... my favorite, the Roasted Pork Loin, Black Kale and Smoked Guanciale Zabaione... now that's a combination made in Italian heaven. Didn't like the Chicken Milanese Panini as much, although I do love the Tuna Tartar Crostino ($16) for a lighter bite (it comes with avocado, pistachio and cantaloupe.) The menu at lunch is somewhat smaller and a tad less expensive.

Mille Foglie dessert

Mille Foglie dessert is a must, along with home-made gelato.

The wine list is deep, astonishing, rather expensive, and does not feature my two favorite American vintages, Laetitia and Justin, so I just stick with a glass of Chianti Classico... suitably marked-up, by the way. They have a buzzy happy hour here, lots of great cocktails... this is a real scene early in the evening. Not my scene, just a good fun scene. It may seem that I have overemphasized the importance of the executive chef here, but since I have been a huge fan of Gino Angelini for more than 20 years, I cannot disassociate him from his new environment. I applaud the IDG guys for having the perspicacity to grab the guy in the red cap and making him a key member of the team. (I'm also a fan of Tom Cardenas, their operations veepee, a top chef in his own right. And their manager here, Rudy Ghezzi, runs a tight ship, with well-trained servers and staff.) They are open five days a week for lunch, every night for dinner, and are preparing a brunch menu for weekends.

RivaBella is a wonderful addition to our local dining scene... and I cannot wait to visit it once again... and then slip next door for a Chinese dish or two. My two favorite cuisines under the same roof... yes, life is good.

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for 112 monthly issues) email him at jayweston@sbcglobal.net.