Beverly Hills, CA: I tried Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura. Here’s my experience.
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I shouldn’t have dallied in the shower, I think. Maybe my makeup routine could’ve been shorter. Sitting at a red light, all I can think about is — I don’t want to be late. Though that’s my typical sentiment any time I have to be somewhere at a certain time, the feeling is especially amplified today. I send a frowning glance at the GPS, which keeps adding more minutes to my route. My brain starts racing, already practicing what I’d say in my defense. How I’d beg. Who I’d shamelessly blame. It took a month and a half to get that table, dammit. I really don’t want to be late.
Luckily, the time ticks back down, and I make it there at 12:30 p.m. on the dot. I hop out of the car and make a beeline to the illuminated sign that reads Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura. The private entrance of the restaurant, which sits at the street level right next to its Beverly Hills flagship store, feels a little bit like a secret — even though it’s out in the open. That’s because, in the midst of Rodeo Drive’s dizzying flash, it’s easy to miss.
When I step inside the entrance hallway, I’m greeted by a wallpaper of blooming flowers set against a rich blue ground and juxtaposed by colorful birds and branches — and a friendly hostess. Coming up right after a well-coiffed, suited-up guy who just got turned down for a reservation, I proudly announced mine. “Wonderful,” The hostess’ mask climbs up her nose as she smiles. She guides me to an elevator at the end of the hallway while giving me a quick spiel about new Covid-19 rules and etiquette. (Note: you are required to wear masks while walking to and away from your table. You are allowed, I’m told, to take it off briefly while eating and taking photos).
The elevator opens up to a tree-print wallpapered lobby and a rooftop outdoor terrace. True, the osteria overlooks one of the loudest streets in Beverly Hills — one that always seems stuck with a looped soundtrack of over-revving exotic cars, hubbub of tourists and the occasional honk of an annoyed middle-class local just passing through — barely any of that makes its way to the rooftop. And when it does, it isn’t really bothersome. I assume that’s because the ambiance cultivates a certain calm feeling. Antique ornate mirrors, Italian marble floors and lavish carpets are juxtaposed with wicker chairs and greenery that are decidedly Californian. Though some 6,400 miles from Italy, the place clearly aims to convince its patrons they’ve been whisked off somewhere else — where Italy and California hold hands and become one.
The waiter gently places a napkin on my lap immediately upon seating. He brings me water, slips a leather placemat on the red-marble countertop, and keeps the chitchat light — something I’m grateful for, given the fact that his Italian accent, muffled by his mask and shield, makes him really hard to understand. Then, I’m left alone to visually digest my surroundings before my blogger friend and fellow fashionista, Kristin, gets here.
I don’t say this outright when Kristin arrives but, having had the best of it, I have high standards when it comes to Italian food, and I expect the full fruition of those standards here at Gucci Osteria. The fact that I’d sound like a complete prick isn’t lost on me. But when you have to wait over a month for a reservation at a restaurant that slings $40 handmade tortellini, you can allow yourself to be a bit of a prick. You can have high standards — correction, you should. (In all fairness to the osteria, its five-course, $135 tasting menu is more than reasonably priced).
Aside from mild, leftover bitterness over a long wait for a table, I have nothing against the place. In fact, there’s a little cheerleader in my head waving her pom poms, angling for a win, hoping my taste buds love what I throw at them today. The truth is, I’ve been obsessing over Chef Massimo Bottura ever since I saw him on the very first episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Massimo, with his strong ideas, knack for clashing flavors, quirky dish names and avant garde plating, is a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen. Case in point: Tucked away in the city of Modena, the chef’s Osteria Francescana, which has garnered three Michelin stars, was the first Italian restaurant to be named the world’s best.
We tried to leave room for Modena in our Italian itinerary, but in the midst of ticking off the country’s other sensational, must-see destinations, it just didn’t work out. Neither did dinner at Gucci’s first restaurant near the Uffizi in Piazza Signoria during our stay in Florence. So, when I heard Massimo was bringing his opuses to California — and to Beverly Hills’ Gucci, of all places — I shrieked in excitement, and after a few minutes of letting the news churn in my mind, cocked my head to one side with curiosity. Osteria Francescana is a quiet, pared-down kind of place. The walls are a blue-ish gray, the color of a cloudy sky, and even its main door looks like, well, not much really. There, the food does all the talking. But how is the food going to fare here? And after reading a few dispassionate reviews and complaints about the hyperbolized prices, will it be worth it?
Our lunch starts with bread, as all good things do — a soft, perfect sourdough and flaky, melt-in-your-mouth lavash, served with ricotta and mildly salted butter sprinkled with bee pollen. On that first bite, I raise my right hand, press my thumb and index finger together and draw a straight horizontal line in the air. A gesture that means, “Perfetto!”
Next comes the main attraction, the Tagliolini Alfredo. What makes it so special? Well, lots of things, including the shigoku oysters, bits of chicken skin and the vibrantly green pasta itself. But really, what takes center stage here are the two tongues of sea urchin. It tastes just hours out of the sea, as though the scuba divers who usually harvest the spiny-shelled creatures from the depth of the ocean just handed them over to the busy chefs in the kitchen. “It tastes like the ocean,” I tell Kristin. Not like fish, no. It’s as though the ocean itself was creamed and turned into custard — delicate, slightly sweet and briny. The delicacy might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but when it’s done right like this — man, it’s good.
The question of dessert is still up in the air. That’s what happens when there are too many good options. So, we opt for the waiter’s recommendation, “Oops I broke the meringue,” which reminds me of another iconic dish served at Massimo’s Osteria Francescana called “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart.” If you’ve watched the Netflix episode, you’ll know that the idea came about when Massimo’s sous chef Taka Kondo accidentally dropped the lemon tart right before serving it. To Kondo, it was a travesty. To Massimo, it was an opportunity — a chance to serve something in a way that’s humorously fresh, easy to eat and most importantly, deliciously imperfect.
The meringue-based dessert at Osteria Gucci is another iteration of that years-old mistake-turned-art, and when it’s placed in front of us, we gasp. A thin layer of meringue (which boasts a pattern matching the plateware), sits cracked on top of a mystery inside. We linger there. For too long. I don’t want to break it, which sounds so silly, given the fact that it’s already broken. But you can’t really know the true brilliance of a dish until you taste it, so I tap the tip of my spoon and shatter the delicate sheet of meringue to reveal raspberry and chopped almonds on top of a final surprise — shiso. Shiso is an herb from the mint family that’s often used in Japanese cooking, and in this dish, it coaxes out a certain bitter, citrusty brightness.
As I nurse the last bite of our dessert, petting it with my spoon, dragging the moment out, I think of the food and how it’s so different from anything I’ve had in Italy, but equally so full of heart. It’s not “Italian” the way nonna makes it. No, Massimo’s dishes don’t involve generous helpings of pasta, gloppy-but-tasty lasagnas and large grilled slabs of meat glistening with pan juices. And really, if that’s what you’re expecting — well, stop. If you’re trying to see the restaurant as anything else other than what it so honestly claims it is, you’re seeing it in error. As the NY Times put it, which I really think says a great deal about the place, Massimo “cooks food that’s about Italy and family and history and memory and art, yes, but ultimately his eclectic platings and flavor combinations reflect the miasmic workings of his own mind.”