- By Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Barbecue and pizza. Their similarities may not jump out at you. But consider the requirements to make excellent versions of both: quality ingredients, treated with care, adorned minimally and executed precisely. There’s also a slightly magical quality about their creation. Not such an odd pairing after all.
Chef Fiore Tedesco worked at the lauded Italian restaurant Roberta’s in Brooklyn and iconic meat-slingers Franklin Barbecue, among other standouts, before opening L’Oca d’Oro (translation: Golden Goose) in the Mueller development in June. He brings the restraint and craftsmanship developed at those restaurants to L’Oca d’Oro, helping make it one of the best Italian restaurants in the city.
In today’s world of Instagram-driven cuisine, it’s rare to find that one of a restaurant’s most remarkable dishes is also one of its least photogenic. Tedesco’s mushroom lasagna ($17) won’t win any beauty pageants, but it still earns honors for its flavor and technique.
The grana arso used to create this lasagna purportedly comes from a Southern Italian tradition of utilizing burned grains fire-thrashed at the end of harvest season in Puglia. While the grain has slowly made its way into American kitchens, it would be more fair to say that American cooks milling it for flour are honoring Italian cooking rather than elevating it, a term often thrown around to discuss translation of foods from outisde America’s borders.
Cultural anthropology aside, grana arso flour, which carries the smoky notes of bubbled and charred pizza crusts, blends with white Sonoran wheat and fermented mushroom powder to create thin waves of pasta that layer an umami-bomb packed with wood-roasted shitake mushrooms and cascading strings of melted taleggio and mozzarella. A small pool of green onion puree enlivens the loamy stack.
Tedesco doesn’t drown his handmade pastas in sauce. That would defeat the purpose, though I’d still like an extra tablespoon of sauce and a few more ounces of meat in certain dishes. The pastas are intended to bring their own flavors to the dishes while maintaining structural integrity and serving as a participatory palette. The dehydrated sage used to make firm tortelli, pinched at their rounded edges, whispers its perfumed breath into the robust white sonoran wheat that, when pierced, releases a slow-motion flow of pumpkin ($15).
You can taste the sweet, almost honeyed flour of casarecce pasta ($14) with fragrant fennel sausage and button mushrooms. The Sicilian pasta’s name literally means “homemade,” which is fitting for its wild, twisting and imperfect shape. The pasta’s unique form echoes the style of a restaurant more concerned with conveying a modest sense of personality than winning awards.
Yes, there is a beautiful blue wall the color of the sky as it meets the Mediterranean and a few mid-century lighting touches in the dining room that sits below a barreled ceiling. But the design touches that resonate most are the grandmotherly garden-themed wallpaper fronting the open kitchen, the vintage movie posters befitting a Roman movie lover dreaming of America in 1970, the playful art on bathroom doors that looks like it could have been part of an installation at the neighboring Thinkery, distressed red and white hand sinks stolen from your Italian grandfather’s favorite cafe, and an alcove above the bar filled with childhood ephemera, like a “Return of the Jedi” poster and a stuffed Philadelphia Phillies Phanatic from Tedesco’s partner and general manager Adam Orman’s youth.
Orman, also a veteran of the New York City (as well as San Francisco) restaurant scene, directs a knowledgeable and professional staff (one server splits her time between the floor and the kitchen, a rare but awesome occurrence) and oversees a wine list comprised of about 50 bottles, more than half of which come from the peninsula. One of the first sentences I learned after moving to Italy as a student 20 years ago was, “Posso avere un mezzo litro di vino rosso?” It wasn’t exactly the proper way to ask for a half-liter of table wine, but it did the job. I tickled that fond memory when ordering a carafe of juicy Gazerra Nero d’Avola, one of four wines on L’Oca d’Oro’s rotating tap selection in September, a program I can certainly get behind.
I can also get behind L’Oca d’Oro’s dazzling assortment of small plates that do their best to show off ingredients. Shaved pecorino and tomato jam put a salty-sweet touch on tender meatballs fried to a crackling finish ($13). A shmear of smooth chicken liver mousse that doesn’t fall prey to the hooch stretched across a plate dotted with blueberries and hazelnuts ($13). The chewy and crunchy bread that arrived with it would serve as a hearty rebuke to Henry Miller. It also acted as base for crostinis ($8 for small, $14 for large) powerful in their elegance and simplicity, like one of stretchy pancetta, crisp Asian pear and luxurious fits of brown butter, and a tart and creamy blueberry butter and scamorza combination stung with Thai chilies that left me wishing they’d jar that butter and sell it to us on our way out the door.
L’oca d’Oro makes their scamorza, along with other cheeses and antipasti like fatty sopressata, fennel-flecked finocchiona and funky ciccioli. You can order the cheeses and meats separately for $5 or $6 or as a collection on a board for $14-$19, but beware the sour bite of the usually more delicate crescenza cheese and the salty assault of pickled vegetables. The star of the selections was the peppery bite of supple mortadella that would make for a perfect bologna sandwich on an Italian picnic. Make sure to toss the watermelon salad dusted with a homemade granola of seeds and nuts into your picnic basket, as well ($10).
Pork Milanesa ($21), a dish whose popularity I can never quite understand, and tawny brick chicken Fra Diavolo ($34), kicked with the acidic burst of tomatoes and peppers, were sturdy representations of both that offered few surprises. If it’s a double-take you’re after, check out the Franklin Barbecue veteran’s inventive play on brisket ($25): He brines the Texas wagyu beef, cooks it sous vide and then finishes on the grill for a tight, charred exterior. The meat is compressed in one block, allowing you to do away with the “lean or fatty” question. It’s all right there in one yielding bite of beefy essence. Take your imagination along for the ride and replace barbecue-joint staples of potato salad and pickles with perfect roasted sweet potatoes swathed in fennel-pollen butter ($8) and smoky-sweet chargrilled okra ($8) served with buttermilk aioli (a nice term for fancy Ranch dressing).
Opening pastry chef Vanessa Ochotorena recently left L’Oca d’Oro, and Tedesco will take control of the program to which he has always contributed. And, here’s to hoping he sticks with the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” axiom. A round olive oil cake ($8) centered by brilliant lemon curd tasted like a walk at dusk through an olive grove suddenly jolted awake by the yellow summer sun, and a s’mores tartufo ($8) that reached precariously toward the sky like a dessert Tower of Pisa featured a graham cracker base, balls of hazelnut and caramel gelato, a dripping chocolate cap and a gooey coat of toasted marshmallow cream. It looked like a bunch of tartufos had jumped on top of each other and draped themselves in a trenchcoat like a wobbly caricature detective in a kid’s book. Sometimes it’s just too fun not to play with tradition.