If you love mozzarella you’ve probably made pilgrimages to Century City to savor the milky fresh buffalo’s milk delicacy that Obica flies in from Italy’s Campania region several times a week (or maybe you’ve tasted it at one of its twenty outlets from New York to Tokyo). Now traffic-weary souls living or working west of the 405 have a recently opened branch in their own backyard on Broadway near 6th in Santa Monica.
The idea of an artisinal mozzarella bar may no longer hold the thrill it once did, but at the new Santa Monica Obica, resident chef Erind Hililaj also turns out a full menu of non-cheese dishes that rely on the carefully sourced artisanal products this restaurant group has curated since its beginnings in Rome in 2004. And he’s just a short jaunt from the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market where all that spectacular produce can supply inspiration for daily specials.
Which is why if you didn’t know Obica was part of a worldwide chain you’d simply assume a great Italian chef had taken over the former Hostaria del Piccolo in the neighborhood. Now that space has a wonderful long wine and food bar that’s great for single diners (or walk-ins). Behind it one wall is devoted to a display of niche wines from almost every wine- producing region in Italy. Many are bottles you won’t see in local wine shops.
Hililaj’s cooking is a sort of upmarket comfort food that skews toward California-style freshness. Consider the pizzas. Destined for the top ten lists of L.A. pies, their crust’s slight chew and nut-like wheaty flavor starts with Italy’s famed Petra flour. Stone-ground, it’s made from Italian-grown organic wheat harvested near Padua. A touch of whole wheat flour adds texture and body. The pizza dough gets a two day-long fermentation known by bakers as the bigga method which lightens the crust and develops those nuanced, multi-level flavors impossible to achieve with other leavening methods.
Toppings range from the pristine organic tomato and bufala mozzarella to the luxurious black truffle with Italian ham. And there’s that spicy Calabrian salami spread, n’duja for those enamored of peppery heat.
This attention to every detail embodies the restaurant’s approach to just about every dish. Whether antipasti or entrée, each plate showcases one or more ingredients from Italian producers whose craftsmanship adheres to age old traditions.
Among the salumi, for instance, is Felino salami made from free range pork raised in the forests of Parma and air cured there because of the ideal microclimate. Order a selection and you also get two-year aged San Danielle DOP produced only in Friuli Venezia Giulia region and air-dried lean beef bresaola as sheer as tissue paper.
There is tuna tartar. Doesn’t everyone serve tuna tartar? Not like this one. Accented with lime, Pantelleria capers and Taggiasche olives, its cubed tuna summons up Peruvian Nike cuisine. Scoop it up with brittle shards of Sardinian Carasau flatbread nicknamed carta da musica.
Although it’s part of a chain, the restaurant serves freshly-made pastas every day. Menu staples include rosemary-scented pappardelle with Tuscan-style duck ragu and ravioli filled with minced kale and bufala mozzarella. The very Californiaesque squid ink taglierini comes swirled swirled with Sardinian bottarga (mullet roe) that adds a pleasant saline pop to the light crab sauce. The whole mound is topped with a fresh Santa Barbara sea urchin for added depth and luxury.
For the hungry there is whole bone-in breaded veal chop among half a dozen entrees.
Desserts are never an afterthought, either. Panna cotta flecked with passion fruit seeds is ultra-creamy and the flourless chocolate cake (without a molten center) laced with sliced almonds is subtly sweet and flawlessly refined. People have been known to return just for those—to have with a glass of dessert wine.
For Obica’s blend of modern style, tried and true flavors and impeccably-crafted ingredients its fans return over and over it be for comfort food or the pleasure of trying something new.