On a street corner in the heart of Koreatown, across from a garish Korean eatery offering all-you-can-eat BBQ, is one of the finest Italian restaurants in the city, one which – interestingly enough – has the lowest prices anywhere for some of the finest Venetian-Italian food in Los Angeles. You might ask, what was noted food critic Jay Weston and two attractive women doing at THE 2nd FLOOR (865 S. Vermont Ave, Koreatown (213) 388-3880, with valet and street parking) at 7 p.m. on a Monday night? Well, the answer is simple...we were there because Jay’s old friend, Stefano Ongaro, had recently taken over the kitchen of what had been a popular Korean sports bar and Stefano Ongaro, Exec Chef and G.M. of The 2nd Floor, a Great Italian Spot in Koreatown converted it into a simply superb Italian dining room specializing in the food of Venice, Italy, once his home. Imagine this: one of Italy’s baseball players, a pitcher in Verona, comes to America at the age of 30 in the hopes of playing in organized baseball. Of course it didn’t happen, so he had to make a quick decision about his future. Having grown up surrounded by great food and wine in Venice, with his grandfather a professional chef, it was obvious what to do. At which point a gentleman whom we all know and love, Piero Selvaggio, offered Stefano a waiter’s job at his worldwide famous restaurant, Valentino, and it was the start of my friend’s 14-year stint there, working his way up to Maitre d’. Which is where we first met and became friends. (He was working there when the 1994 earthquake devastated one of the world’s finest wine collections, he (Stefano) recalls to seen a river of red wine, mercilessly, dribbling down Pico Boulevard...unfortunately, only some were replaced by good friends and compatriots. I have followed Stefano’s career after he left Valentino, when he met Chef Sal Marino and became G.M. of Marino’s Il Grano. After four years, he opened his own place, multi awarded, All’ Angelo, in 2007, which I favorably reviewed.
What a wrong timing!
First the writer’s strike of 2008, then the global economic collapse in 2009, forced him, among a tons of others restaurants to close the doors. He went back to baseball. You are not going to believe this: he founded a company licensed by Major League Baseball to produce the 24-karet gold leather baseballs which were used at the Home Run Derby as the Money Ball. (Don’t ask.)
When Korean bar owner Mike Kim prevailed upon him to transform his sports bar to a fine Italian restaurant, he could not resist the challenge, especially when it was agreed that Stefano would be in complete charge of the operations / concept and cooking the delicious Venetian food of his youth, the tapas-style Cichetti. Which is why we arrived this week at The 2nd Floor Restaurant Bar & Grill on that street corner on Vermont Avenue in Koreatown to dine at the only Italian restaurant in this ethnic conclave. My two female friends were experienced restaurant observers, my regular critic companion, Penny McTaggart, and Jill Messick, the former Apple exec who worked with Steve Jobs. We went upstairs to enjoy one of the finest Italian feasts of my life, a veritable Venetian wonderland of food and wine...one which you can also well enjoy if only you wander down Olympic to Vermont. (It’s not that far, only in midtown Wilshire, and the tasty repast after your arrival makes the trip so, so worthwhile.)
As we sat down, Stefano arrived with a platter of Amuse Bouche: Crostini Sardines, pan-fried fresh sardines atop sweet-sour onions and golden raisins on toast; Crostini Baccala, whipped salted Mediterranean cod, too salty for me but made up for me by the next taste, my favorite, Crostini Tartare, raw scallops and sea urchin (uni) on toast. Knowing my love for uni, Penny gave me hers, a good friend. But the first real dish was so succulently good that the two girls eagerly finished it in seconds, allowing me some crumbs. It was Cavolini di Bruxell ($9), a fancy name for Brussels sprouts leaves, fried with crispy bread crumbs and toasted almonds, with a drop of real aged balsamic vinegar. I had spotted and requested another appetizer on the menu, Braised Tripe Parmesan-style ($11), with grilled polenta. The women turned up their noses at this plebian dish but it was so delicious I scarfed up every morse of the tripe in a light tomato sauce...never had a better version of that very Northern Italian delicacy.
The salad course was Insalata di Granchio e Pere ($13), butter lettuce wrapped Maryland crab, with Bosc pear and Belgian endive. A favorite of Penny. Instead, I went for the other dish he had brought out, Carpaccio di Manzo ($12) done in Venetian style, pounded raw prime Black Angus beef filet with radicchio and rum-marinated Fuji apple, sprinkled with shaved parmesan. I think I thoughtlessly ate most of the beef.
My readers know that I have been writing a lot about discovering new dishes around the world...and here was a simple, brilliant, delicious appetizer I had never eaten before...Tortino di Cavolfiore ($10), a cauliflower timbale, with mascarpone cheese and chives. Jill smiled as she dished up a few spoonsful, saying it was one of the most delicious dishes she had ever eaten, and we agreed. But now it was pasta time, and I had been pontificating as I am wont to do about the unique pasta shapes you will find in Naples and Venice...and here was a Neapolitan legend, the Paccheri di Gragnan, Polipo, Consume’ di Astice, the famed double-wide rigatoni noodles of Naples, with slivers of octopus in a lobster bisque. Each of us smiled in appreciation as we finished the portion, knowing that a second pasta was on its way. The maestro brought the dish and set it down with the soft comment, House-made Tagliatelle al Coniglio ($15), and I offhandedly said, “It’s pulled roasted rabbit with fresh mint.” Jill looked askance at the mention of rabbit but, brave girl, she took a bite, then another. Her look of approval was welcome. It was a superb dish, but Stefano had indicated that the true Venetian pasta was next, and here was the Bigoli all’ Anatra, the homemade Venetian thick spaghetti. I could have made a meal just of this, and it brought back memories of a rainy February night in Venice going to the famed Masked Ball after dining on this dish.
Signor Ongaro would not let us go without a sampling of several other specialties. Seppie alla Piastra ($14), fresh Mediterranean cuttlefish, served with squid-ink risotto. I was full but he indicated that we must taste his house-made Bratwurst, served with – get this – baby back pork ribs and braised Savoy cabbage. I really loved his sausage, not so much the cabbage. Every restaurant in town is serving pork belly, and this one is no exception. The Slow-roasted Pork Belly had ben glazed with honey and was a wonderful example of the dish, He finished this extravagant banquet with a dish which my friend Jill, thought was the highlight of the night, Quagliette Ripiene al Forno, roasted semi-boneless Napa Valley quail stuffed with spinach, ricotta cheese, golden raisins and roasted almonds. Oh my, how I wish I had room for this beautiful bird. But I will be back soon and can start with it.
I have not gone into detail, because of space limitations, about the wines which Stefano served with each course. Let me suggest that when you come, as I know you will, allow him to select your drinks...his wine list is replete with very fairly priced Italian vintages, most of which we have never seen because he gets these small select boutique importers, but you will be delighted with the choices. He has a wide selection of craft beers and after-dinner drinks like Moscato ($8). Desserts are as sweetly delicious as everything else, and I dreamed about the Polenta Pudding ($9) with its Meyer Lemon emulsion. He will undoubtedly bring you his house-made Profiteroles ($9) stuffed with salted caramel ice cream.
Stefano has created one of the finest Italian restaurants in all of Los Angeles, and I can only hope that its unusual location will not distract from its deserved success. I know that I will be going back often to dine on his spectacular Venetian dishes, and yes, I might even try that all-you-can eat Korean BBQ across the way.
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— by Jay Weston
About the restaurant: If you're going to be the only Italian restaurant in Koreatown, you'd better do it well. Second Floor Restaurant Bar & Grill's owner Mike Kim understands that. To make the place a success, he has partnered with Italian chef/restaurateur Stefano Ongaro (All' Angelo, DOMA). Ongaro likes to say that he is not Italian, but Venetian. Faithful to his roots, he has composed a menu with true Italian tastes, with no influence from any other parts of the world...
...About the food & drinks: Many items are homemade: bread, sausages, mozzarella and, of course, the pasta. All the dishes on the menu are appetizing. It is just a matter of choosing what you feel like that evening between the antipasti, soup, pizza, risotto, pasta and main courses...
...There are few must-haves: the house-made tagliatelle with pulled roasted rabbit and, yes, fresh mint; the bigoli alla Genovese; and the wild shrimp and Meyer lemon risotto. As you can imagine, Ongaro has put together a wine list with many Italian labels. We like the many choices of wine by the glass.
Here’s an interesting one for always-churning Koreatown: Second Floor Restaurant Bar & Grill has arrived, offering keenly-priced Italian pastas and wine from, yep, the second story of a strip mall off Vermont Avenue.
— Farley Elliott