Osteria La Buca
5210 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles CA 90038 (map); 323-462-1900; osterialabuca.com
Cooking Method: Broiled
Short Order: An Italian osteria defies expectations to deliver a full-flavored, Italianate burger
Want Fries with That? Sort of; you won't find traditional fries here, but the fried gnocchi is a surprising mix of crunchy and pillowy goodness
Prices: Bistek Burger, $12 (w/fried gnocchi)
There are burgers spots and then there are spots that happen to have burgers. With a name like Osteria La Buca, it'll come as no surprise that this week's review falls solidly in the second category. I've always felt it was odd to discriminate against the non-burger-specialist's burger. Certainly there's a tendency for the generalists to shortcut some of the finer points of burger construction, but just as certainly there are numerous delicious exceptions. In my town, Rustic Canyon and Comme Ça immediately jump to mind.
But, despite my soft spot for the Italian eatery (born of both my Italian-American upbringing and a lifetime spent working at my father's restaurant), I found myself wielding a bit of the burger nativist's prejudice when I was told that Osteria La Buca served a lunch burger more than worth my time. Could it be that a little Italian-owned spot served up a fantastic piece of American culinary heritage? Well, sort of.
The Bistek Burger at Osteria La Buca is a hybrid of the restaurant's Italian traditions and the classic components of the dish. While its patty is American-made blend of brisket, short rib, and hangar steak and the bun is a homemade Italian roll. The cheese is a melting-friendly Taleggio and the tomato is roasted. Mayo is swapped out for a runny and tangy aioli. The chef, Jason Neroni, makes his own pickle, but chooses zucchini over a cucumber.
It's all identifiably a burger, but at the same time there's no mistaking the Italian influence. Of course, no matter the influences the real test is the taste; on that count it passes with flying colors (with some minor tweaks).
The first thing to note is that the zucchini pickle was wholly out of place for me—the astringent bite was too powerful—and I immediately removed it. Once I did, there was little to dislike. The meat was ground to a nice medium coarseness and despite the slathering of aioli, the flavor of the crust from a hearty broiling still shone through. It also maintained a noticeable and satisfying juiciness. The aioli, while tasty, was a bit of an overdressing to some very good meat.
The roasting of the tomato is a welcome reworking of the traditional topping that (as you will oft hear me say) isn't a great choice in the first place. The Italian roll in place of a traditional bun was a surprising success. It has more chew and flavor than a traditional commercial bun, but it matches nicely with the burger's other Italian flavors.
Because I insist on exhaustive research as a matter of course in my burger reviewing, i had to try the closest thing the Italians actually make to our burger patty: the meatball. Osteria La Buca's meatballs were full of flavor and enjoyably topped with heaps of cheese and herbs. Disappointingly though, they were served on sliced Italian bread rather than a roll. The bread is good, but their homemade roll seemed better suited.
Rather than french fries, Osteria La Buca serves a very clever plate of fried gnocchi along with the burger and the meatball sandwich. They're traditional gnocchi that are deep fried. The skins get a mellow crispness and the dumplings themselves are almost chewy. At first I wasn't sure what to make of them, but after a few bites I was hooked. They were a smart reworking of the traditional French fry side.
If you're dead set on an unadulterated spud experience, your only option, the roasted fingerlings, isn't a bad one. This isn't a revelatory preparation (olive oil and rosemary), but the potatoes are handled well.
In fact, that's how I'd probably describe much of the food at Osteria La Buca. I've enjoyed their simple preparations of Italian staples, but never thought to look for a re-imagining of a burger. There are small missteps—the zucchini is out of place and the aioli needs to be throttled back—but on balance this was a delicious Italian interpretation of the American classic.