When Ospi, the big, new Italian restaurant in Venice, announced plans to open in the middle of the pandemic earlier this year, I’ll admit I had some doubts. The owners - Jackson Kalb and Melissa Saka - also run El Segundo’s Jame Enoteca, one of my favorite restaurants in the city, so I suspected if anyone could do it, they could. (It turns out, they didn’t have much of a choice). But now? In a neighborhood populated with pasta-filled heavy-hitters like Felix, Rose Cafe, and Barrique? And, as incredible pop-ups thrive in ghost kitchens, backyards, and apartments across the city, is an expensive Italian spot in Venice necessary?
As it turns out, the answer to all those questions is yes, because Ospi’s Southern Italian menu brings something new - and very special - to the Westside, at a time when it needs a bit of both.
Ospi migrated a few of the best pastas (and a damn good kale salad) from the Jame menu, but it’s a decidedly different restaurant from its strip-mall sibling. The menu is huge, with entire sections dedicated to fett’unta (toasted bread), meats, and pizzas. And, in addition to the handmade pasta, there’s a whole lot here that’s worth your time - starting with those pizzas, which are served tonda style, meaning they’re about as thin as a cracker. Toppings here play on traditional options - the ’nduja and green onion is a lot like a sausage, pepper, and onion pie - and the Hapa, with ground pepperoni, slow-roasted pineapple, and raw and pickled jalapenos, is, of course, a Hawaiian. Both are big winners, especially the latter, which is a sweet-and-spicy homage to the pizza at Domenico’s in Long Beach, which Saka grew up eating. They’re also an ideal order for a pair or a small group (and not just because it’s never a bad idea to order pizza): They give you an idea of the creativity coming out of the kitchen, and they’re light enough that they won’t weigh you down for the rest of your meal.
And believe me; you’re going to want to save some room for everything else on the menu. Get the butter chicken, a beautiful pan-fried chicken breast, and make sure to get it parm-style, meaning doused with vodka sauce and pecorino Romano. As far as the pastas go, the reigning champ - and the one every server will recommend - is the malloreddus, a delicate Sardinian pasta with thyme-spiced, salty beef cheek ragu and a healthy portion of melted grana padano cheese. The lamb neck and pine nut cannelloni is close behind, and is just the right amount of gamey and tender. There’s a major sleeper in the ceci e tria, a beautifully simple plate with fried pasta, chickpeas, olive oil, and lemon that is a PhD-level seminar in balance of flavor.
Beyond the innovative food and beautiful pasta, another reason this place feels so refreshing is that there’s a genuine human connection with the staff here. Before the second outdoor dining shutdown, owners Saka and Kalb were often the ones pouring your water, and chatting it up (through mask and shield) with outdoor diners. Now, with takeout their only option, they write little love notes to customers on their paper bags, thanking you for the purchase.
In a year like this, just being able to leave the house and walk down the street can feel like something worth celebrating. But more than that, in 2020, when the restaurant industry has been decimated by both the virus and the woefully incompetent government response to it, a meal from Ospi feels like a celebration of restaurants’ resilience. And that - along with some perfect beef cheek ragu - is what makes Ospi an absolutely essential addition to an LA restaurant scene that has had a tremendously difficult year.
This is a version of pollo al burro, a pan-fried chicken dish with butter and lemon, that is essentially a perfectly cooked chicken tender. The naked version is good, but you want to order it parm-style - meaning that it’s topped with Jame’s creamy, spicy vodka sauce, and some parmesan.
You don’t have to be a Hawaiian Pizza lover to appreciate the balance in this wafer-thin pie, topped with salty ground pepperoni, sweet, slow-roasted pineapple, and spicy jalapeño slices. If you want to really go for it, add on the burrata-and-chili dipping sauce, which is essentially the world’s fanciest Ranch dressing.
If the words “beef cheek ragu” make your palms sweat and your cheeks flush, that’s the correct reaction. Pair this wondrous sauce with an excellent, hand-rolled gnocchi/pasta hybrid (a Sardinian speciality), and you get a dish that’s a highlight of any meal at Ospi.
Anything you see that comes with the house vodka sauce is a winner - whether on this spicy rigatoni, on the chicken parm, or as a perfect dipping sauce for the crispy, deep-fried provolone (an incredible update to plain mozzarella sticks).
Though it looks nothing like a traditional eggplant parm, that’s exactly what this dish is. Perfectly tender Japanese eggplant is tossed with a healthy portion of spicy tomato oil, basil, and parm - this is how you want to start your meal.