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Mar 28, 2009 02:35 PM

Valentino Review - The search goes on for a GREAT Italian experience in So. Cal.

Full report with formatted pics:

Review below:

Having already tasted much of the Los Angeles Italian fine dining scene with previous visits to All Angelo, La Botte, C&O Trattoria, and Osteria Mozza I finally decided to make my way to the venerable Valentino for a classy meal with an old friend who I hadn't seen in ages. Gracious for the company and expecting great things after reading Chef Tarantino's menu I even suggested the meal was my treat when I declined my friend's suggestion for the vastly more affordable Angelini Osteria. While I admit that high expectations aren't always ideal when going into a restaurant for the first time I figured Valentino's pedigree spoke for itself.

Arriving around 6:00pm and securing free parking only feet from the front door of Valentino's compound-like exterior I greeted my pal and we made our way through the front doors into the notably dark and romantic interior. Admittedly I was a little put off by the television in the bar and the cheesy Italian music playing over the speakers, but we were greeted warmly by our server and escorted immediately through to the main dining room and an elegant table in the corner. Wine was offered and declined and while I drank tap water my dining partner opted for an expensive, yet “excellent” Italian beer. Throughout the meal, I must say the service was good with my only major complaint being that water was not refilled as quickly as I would’ve hoped.

Menus were next presented and once we got past the notably high prices we decided to each get the same appetizer and a main. Orders taken, bread was next presented. Like Mozza and La Botte, bread was served without butter, but unlike the others there were multiple breads presented including an olive sourdough, crispy breadsticks, and a sesame seed white. Boring and cool I must say the bread was a great disappointment – I doubt butter or olive oil would have helped.

After a short while and a lot of excellent conversation our first course arrived – the Gli Gnocchi of Semolina-ricotta-saffron pillows with porcini, peas and prosciutto. My favorite dish and the standard by which I judge Italian food I must admit – I was floored. Despite the small portion, the gnocchi were flawlessly textured and perfectly soft, smooth, and “melt in the mouth.” Coated with a simple butter and Parmigianino sauce and contrasted beautifully with crispy prosciutto, earthy porcinis, and sweet peas my friend stated that this was the best gnocchi she had ever consumed and I would definitely place the dish amongst my top five – certainly the best in LA.

Dishes collected we sat and talked some more as the room began to fill with elderly couples in dark suits, many of whom carried bottles of pricey wines that were gladly served by the staff – Valentino is definitely the sort of place where the service improves with a significant wine bill. As the night went on the staff also notably lowered the lights to create more ambiance – I only wish they’d have lowered the music as well. It is interesting to me that so many complain of Mozza’s music when both La Botte and Valentino have a vastly inferior soundtrack that is just as loud.

For our mains I selected another pasta while my companion chose the Salmon with brussel sprouts and potatoes (not pictured.) Served on a long plate in an elegant manner, my Risotto Nero e Aragosta of Squid ink risotto with Maine lobster and cherry tomatoes was superb – albeit quite petite in portion. Flawless risotto blended with mascarpone that had been colored and accented with a generous amount of salty squid ink was served beneath a poached quarter-lobster and delectably sweet tomatoes that won’t be seen in Ohio for at least another 3 months – as delectable to the palate as the eye and a show stealing dish that nearly justified its price tag.

Enjoying the food and the company and certainly not yet full, dessert was ordered next and served quite quickly compared to the previous two courses. While my counterpart opted for a relatively standard chocolate lava cake with pear sorbet (loved the cake, not so much the sorbet) I selected the Bundino with Vanilla Praline Pudding and Almond-Orange Cantucci at the recommendation of our server. Small in size but relatively explosive in taste the dish consisted of a warm and buttery vanilla pound cake in a bowl buried beneath a cool and smooth pudding with hints of caramel, almond, and cinnamon. Good but not great, the dish was not helped by the bland and dry cantucci/biscotti.

All told I must say I have mixed feelings about Valentino. While the food was quite excellent, the prices were quite excessive and equally good food can be had at Osteria Mozza, La Botte, or All Angelo. While the service was good, we clearly did not warrant the same attention as those racking up an exorbitant wine/corkage fee and my water sat empty for 10+ minutes twice during the eighty minute meal. Finally, details such as the sub-par bread and excessively poor music simply weren’t conducive to a “great” experience. In the end I walked out of Valentino happy to have had the opportunity to treat my friend, but $150 lighter in the wallet and still a little bit hungry. While I’d likely come back to try the tasting at some point, I’d sooner check out Angelini or the Drago establishments first as I continue to look for a truly GREAT Italian experience in Los Angeles.

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  1. Recently I paid more than twice that amount in Las Vegas for a solo meal at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon (upcoming review on the Southwest Board), where you sit in an uncomfortable high-chair at a counter and, if you're really lucky, instead of music get to listen to the guy at your elbow explain to his loud date how much fun he had on his last vacation -- one of many, I gathered -- on a cruise or the moon or someplace. My food may have been even better than the splendid meal you describe at Valentino, but, unfortunately, you sometimes have to fight hard to enjoy the greatness in outstanding kitchens.

    It's too bad the little things bothered you so much at Valentino. I've had many wonderful meals there and strongly suggest a return visit on some pleasant night, good company in arm, for grilled fresh porcini, for example, and one of their 2,500 wines. Compared to some of our hottest restaurants enjoying their 15 weeks of fame -- I'm not referring to L'Atelier, a true-fine place -- Valentino prices are actually quite reasonable.

    Valentino (Santa Monica)
    3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405

    4 Replies
    1. re: sbritchky

      Does Valentino have a nice bar for dining alone?

      1. re: a_and_w

        Yes. Not huge, just a few high tables but you can order off either the V-Bar Menu or the regular menu. Service is quite good and lots of good choices of wine by the glass.

        1. re: a_and_w

          The Bar was okay looking.....with a TV and the same bad music as the restaurant.

      2. Is that $150 for 2? I usually run about 80-100pp at Mozza so I wouldn't consider it outrageous if that bill was for 2.

        It is interesting Mozza gets so many complaints about the music isn't it? Even more curious is that the same people who complain about Mozza noise suggest Valentino as an alternative.

        Back to the food though, for pasta alone what is your personal ranking for these 5 places?

        4 Replies
        1. re: Porthos

          Best based on pasta alone: Valentino > Mozza > All Angelo > La Botte > C&O
          Best based on food (dessert, bread, meats, pastas:) Mozza > All Angelo > Valentino > La Botte > C&O
          Best based on service: C&O > La Botte > All Angelo = Mozza = Valentino
          Best Ambiance: C&O = All Angelo > Mozza > La Botte = Valentino
          Best "Bang for your buck": C&O > Mozza > La Botte > All Angelo = Valentino

          1. re: uhockey

            I'm sorry, but you lost me when you threw in C&O into the mix.

            Say what you will about Valentino's prices and service but to put C&O into the same discussion as places like Mozza, All Angelo and Valentino is like saying the Pinto is not that much worse of a car than the Mercedes or the Bentley.

            1. re: ipsedixit

              Matter of opinion, I guess.......I said their pastas were the worst, but the ingredients were quality and their garlic knots, service, and ambiance were just as good - IMO.

              1. re: ipsedixit

                whoo. amen. there's no disputing taste, of course, but I'd be interested in seeing what your rankings would be like after y ou've eaten around a bit more and maybe been to Italy a couple of times. I really like Mozza and have a great time there, but it is seriously Americanized (no, Batali-ized) food ... way over the top. La Botte and Al'Angelo are good, too. But there is a subtlety and finesse to great Italian cooking that they don't quite seem to hit consistently. Often, what seems boring or simple at first becomes more interesting as you learn more about it and can better appreciate it.

            1. re: lizziee

              I'm really not sure how they shared appetizers........or thought the bread was wonderful. For wonderful bread - Spago, CUT, Providence, Mastros, Mozza, All Angelo, C&O.....lets just say it was the worst quality bread service I've had in LA - though La Botte wasn't very good either.

            2. 150$ for two people is really not excessive considering the level of restaurant. Valentino is a restaurant known worldwide for its wine list. Not ordering or drinking wine, does defeat the purpose somewhat...

              3 Replies
              1. re: lambrusche

                Probably they got off easy because they didn't order water, wine or two meat courses.

                I would never throw bread or dessert into the mix if rating Italian restaurants.

                I think C&O does a good job of understanding their target audience, which is different than Valentino's.

                1. re: mlgb

                  Why should all aspects of the meal not be on par with the mains?

                  1. re: uhockey

                    I agree. If you don't include bread of dessert for the review why bother with music?
                    Thank you for the review. I highly recommend Vincenti and Angelini also.

              2. I was disappointed with Valentino when I went 10 years least it's consistent.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Funwithfood

                  What did you have 10 years ago, and what disappointed you so much?

                  1. re: Harry Nile

                    Nothing "disappointing" per se, just underwhelmed.

                    But...if you pick up the tab, I'll give it a 2nd chance!