Novecento Pasta & Grill
Culver City, CA
Culver City can chew up restaurants and spit them out like a spoonful of cold Spaghetti-Os, so it takes brass coglioni to elbow your way between the big dogs and have any kind of staying power. In 1995, Angela Vianello managed to squeeze her laid-back Northern Italian bistro into a room’s width space and has managed to quietly flourish in Restaurant Row. Novecento Pasta and Grill defies categorization; the restaurant literally looks like someone put a roof over a brick-walled alley between a couple of Italian buildings. The bare, mismatched granite tabletops are furnished with paper placemats, a knife and fork to each side and a fan-shaped paper napkin at each setting. It’s an unpretentious, noisy and casual place that seems like the ideal place to kick back with friends right after work and enjoy a bite, a glass of wine and some spirited conversation.
There’s no bar; the libations aren’t stored in a climate controlled vault or on some rustic wooden rack decorated with plastic grapevines – bottles of wine are simply lined up on the counter at the end of the half-height glass walled kitchen. You won’t find mixologist Leo doing triple-gainers with flaming bottles here; in fact you couldn’t find a bartender at Novecento with a private detective. There are about eight international vintages on the wine list by the bottle or glass, with as many Italian wines available; I probably would have tried a nice Chianti but I couldn’t find liver and fava beans on the menu.
Also conspicuously absent was an Executive Chef; a single very friendly cook held down the kitchen duties, and in his glass cage there was no way to get away with cutting corners or cheating with pre-prepared food. Fresh baked bread that came to the table in spongy rectangles was cut off of a massive loaf on demand and served with an herbed olive oil that looked like chimichurri; since I was gunning for a substantial pasta dish I decided to avoid the temptation of going into carbohydrate overload. The waiter was patient and fielded my questions to the best of his ability; I asked him the significance of the restaurant’s name (“900” in Italian) and he responded that it represents the turn of the century. While this may be true, it would have been the turn of the century about a millennium ago, but I imagine millenovecentonovantacinque would have cost a fortune to the sign maker.
I decided to start out with soup; the menu offered two options – the obligatory minestrone or the zuppa del giorno (which I jokingly hoped aloud wasn’t Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup). When the waiter informed me that the soup of the day was cream of mushroom, I asked him which he thought was better. I was relieved when he suggested the minestrone, not because I actually entertained the thought of them serving Campbell’s soup, but because I couldn’t get that stupid image out of my head. The soup comes in two sizes, and though I could have sworn I ordered the small bowl, I was delivered a rather substantial portion that made me wonder if the large size came in a child’s wading pool. The minestrone was somewhat unusual in that it had a green hue to it; it was very aromatic, with a nose of leafy vegetables, parsley and basil. Most of the ingredients were green with nearly whole leaves of spinach, long green beans (instead of the usual white beans) and big chunks of zucchini; the few slices of carrot and cubes of potato seemed a mere afterthought. Also unusual was the choice of pasta – this was the first minestrone I’d ever had that contained elbow macaroni (described as “pasta tubes” on the menu). The vegetables were fairly cooked down almost to the point of dissolving; each spoonful gave the impression of drinking a fresh, green garden in the spring.
As in Italy, I was given the option of multiple courses – I only opted for a primi as the ample portions were extremely filling. It was almost a requirement that I try Novecento’s signature dish: the ravioli della Nonna. Loosely translated to “grandma’s ravioli”, I assumed this dish to be patterned after a recipe by Vianello’s grandmother. The dish contains vodka, but its application is somewhat confusing – the menu describes the inclusion of “onions flamed in vodka”; the web site states the ravioli is “marinated with vodka sauce” and our waiter stated that they apply a light dressing of vodka to the cooked ravioli before dousing with the sauce. The dish itself is a marvelous adventure – for starters, the menu promises “marinara sauce and a touch of cream” but I think in actuality they’re going for a pink sauce. What came to the table was a sea of orangey sauce containing big chunks of spinach flotsam and jetsam (my apologies if the description sounds unappetizing – I actually found the generous gobs of spinach in the sauce delightful). At the bottom of this salmon sea was a hefty portion of Goldilocks-approved pasta (not too firm, not squishy soft). Although every written description of this dish honestly conveys the ravioli being stuffed with spinach and ricotta, I was expecting some spinach dip-like blend but instead found the now omnipresent whole leaf bundle of spinach surrounded by a conservative measure of cheese. The ravioli cut well with a fork, and the spinach accounted for not only the predominant flavor but also an audible texture that added another dimension to the dish. The presence of the vodka was subtle with all the ingredients working in concert to create a memorable pasta dish.
Although full from the sizable portions, I couldn’t help asking if they had cannoli – with no pastry chef or Italian bakery on the premises, I couldn’t fault them for the negative reply. Novecento is a no-nonsense, bare-bones bistro that I would be happy to frequent with friends for a casual meal and a glass of wine. The odd brick and stone sculpture decor on the walls with the open kitchen at the end makes the restaurant a cozy, quirky neighborhood hangout, a nice place to go and get lost for a while. If you’ll be dining in a place resembling a closed alley, at least you won’t feel like you have to keep an eye on your wallet.
NOTE: This cost for this meal was provided by the restaurant. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the organizer of the event.