Dare I Say, the Best Italian in L.A.?

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Who can resist a starter of runny egg on sauteed spinach with prosciutto on toast?

I think I’ve found my favorite Italian food place in Los Angeles. I say “think” because I have been known to eat such widely declarative words before. Long ago, I said it about Piccolo, but that was pre-Cute Gardener when I had no idea how truly spoiled I was about to become upon falling in love with a man who cooks pasta at least twice weekly. I said it at Osteria Mozza after slurping up cold squid ink and uni pasta. I said it about Scarpetta after digging into a breadbasket full of buried Stromboli. I said it about Il Fico after falling in deep love with a bowl of strozzapreti. I said it about Chi Spacca after one bite of the orgasmic veal roulade, dripping in caramelized cow parts. I said it at Bestia after sucking the daylights out of lamb neck studded with the most appropriate chimichurri of mint. But now, I have definitely hit a pasta and pork nirvana and it is called Factory Kitchen.

IMG_2758First off, there’s the pasta. From the moment we drove down an alley-like street between two ominous rows of downtown L.A. warehouse buildings full of progressive design collectives, art entities and rooms for the occupancy of “surviving just fine off the radar” businesses and start ups and into the hands of a valet, I knew entering the glass doors of the unassuming Factory Kitchen was unique. Understated restaurant stuffed amongst the brownstones of industrial L.A. thriving and packed in its burgeoning popularity where every seat in the dining room has a neck-reaching view into a bustling kitchen. But from where we were seated I had the best view of all: right next to the pasta machine and the two cooks who stood guard all night cranking out identical paper thin sheets to be squared into ravioli or wrapped around densely packed inch long tubes of ground meat or folded like neck scarves into signature, unctuous dishes for the pleasure of us diners. I was the lucky recipient of the latest batch of perfectly rolled casonzei which looked like pieces of wrapped hard candy with twisted bows on each end, holding in luscious and rich morsels of veal, pork and sausage dressed sparingly in a cured pork, butter and sage sauce.

IMG_2757I knew the CG would order the mandilli di seta—a pasta resembling flat wide folds of a handkerchief and topped with ligurian almond basil pesto. He is a fan of the fat noodle and is hard pressed to resist a good Chinese flat noodle, spiced shrimp stuffed dim sum rice sheet or toothy pappardelle. But we had talked earlier in the day about how easy it is to mess up a dish like this, where noodles tend to come over cooked and mushy, swimming in sauces that fail to prop up the pasta. But in this case, the noodle was perfectly al dente and the green dressing complemented its undulating crevices in ways we may never comprehend remaining half vegetal and half buttery while overall, exquisitely blended.

IMG_2760We normally stop there- a starter and two pastas representing an ideal dinner for two. But there were two more things calling our attention. A focaccino calda di recco al formaggio or piece of silky slim flatbread without the structure and rigidity of pizza but more wavy and pillow-like, which came faintly strewn with melted Italian cow’s milk crescenza cheese and studded with shaved foraged mushrooms, olive oil and parsley.

IMG_2761We finished off with the porchetta-something we never order because we know how it can be done so badly with too hard outer rings impenetrable by the tines of a fork or rough in areas and soft in others. We respect pork too much to try its lesser-known applications. Yet, I had an instinctual urge to order it here and was thrilled that I did when what came was a platter laid with meat in circular strata that alternated between liquid, delicious fat, smoky rind, light and tender meat and dark and funky parts—all miraculously juicy and flavorful.

Thank goodness I am currently on a dessert ban. Otherwise I would have probably wolfed down the torta sarcena, a buckwheat cake with mascarpone mousse, poached pears and walnuts.

What makes Factory Kitchen worthy of my favorite Italian food place in Los Angeles moniker? Especially when I have loved so many other places and dishes in this vein? It is simply within the consistency. Everything was impeccable and that is an uncommon feat; perhaps alluded to in the restaurant’s name denoting the kind of mechanical, automatic assembly line equipped with the proper checks and balances, resided over by an iron-fisted visionary that makes churns out great food each and every time.

The More Than Once Recipe Box Test

IMG_9062I grew up loving my mother’s small army green plastic box full of index cards, smudged over time with lard, sugar, and sauce-based fingerprints, that carried her Iowan legacy of “feed a family of ten” recipes. I loved the evenings she would pull the box down off the fridge for I knew that meant dinner would consist of favorite, belly-warming comfort food dishes like scalloped potatoes with peas and ham; blackened baked beans with bits of bacon and fat; Tator Tot casserole with Velveeta cheese melted on top and cream of mushroom soup cradling browned hamburger meat beneath; chewy peanut butter cookies smushed down with the shape of fork tines in the center; and my favorite of all – salmon patties with creamed peas, crafted from fish out of a can with bones that melted between the teeth. When I was in my early twenties I attempted to take the box from my mom and gift her with a typed, clean manuscript via my computer that she could read better but I stopped that project halfway through realizing I had no idea what “a dash” meant and couldn’t read half of the tiny scrawled notes and revisions that had cropped up on the margins of the cards over the years. I was thrilled when my daughter turned 20 and was bestowed with that recipe box from her doting grandmother even though she still texts me every once in a while asking me to de-code mom’s food stained doodles and instructions for meat loaf or banana bread that are now fully engraved upon my soul.

Because of this recipe lineage I have been very odd in my own foodie endeavors to create a box of my own. I am the type of cook who likes to find new things to make and make them and then forget about them because there are millions of new recipes around the corner and not enough time in one lifetime to make even a tiny percentage of them. I have a perpetual Pinterest page that I visit weekly when it’s my time to make dinner for the Cute Gardener and even that shows no sign of slowing down. So the idea of a recipe box of my own maintains a level of sanctity and prestige. If something makes it in there it means I love it so much that I actually will make it again, and share it with my daughter, and troll it out at fancy dinner parties – a rarity that so far has held only a few cards all alone.

As of now, ten years after its inception, my recipe box consists of only the following:

Mustard batons
Roasted chicken, gorgonzola, raddichio and Champagne dressing salad
Homemade pizza
Saffron risotto
Panzanella salad
Mom’s Swedish pot roast
Chicken piccata and mushrooms

That is how picky I am with collecting anything amongst the revolving door of delights I can try. But I will someday leave my daughter some semblance of a book as well.

Last week I encountered a new recipe that has found a prestigious place in my box—one that I will no doubt want to present at the next soiree I am invited to as I know it will be a  treat for all who try it—maybe that’s the prerequisite for getting into my recipe box—the food has to be orgasmic or comforting. In any case, this dish of tuna and peppers was first spied in Dorie Greenspan’s French book that I have been working through for three years (albeit a slightly different version). It was then rediscovered in an issue of Food and Wine. What enthralled me about the recipe was that it called for canned tuna, a virtual faux pas in foodie land, although lauded as the essential ingredient. One bite and I knew why. Smother this mixture over a piece of baguette and let the oil sink in to the fishy flesh and mingle with the odd sweetness of capers that occurs once sharing roasting space with a half a head of garlic and and you are guaranteed to get your whistle whet as well. It is also easier than pie and you could commit it to memory even quite well.

Note: I couldn’t find poblano peppers so I used their sister Anaheims, which were just as nice. I also served with a main dish of swiss chard, ricotta and lemon pasta. MMMMM!

Herb-Marinated Peppers and Tuna
Reprinted from Food and Wine

2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and crushed
4 poblano peppers (1 pound), sliced lengthwise into 1/2-inch strips
1/3 cup drained capers
Two 8-ounce jars good-quality tuna, drained
1/2 cup basil leaves
Lemon wedges and crusty bread, for serving

Heat the oven to 450°. In a baking dish, combine the olive oil, garlic, poblanos and capers. Roast for 20 minutes, until the poblanos are tender. Let cool until warm, then stir in the tuna and basil. Serve with lemon wedges and bread.