It seems like only yesterday, back when we lived like real writersbroke, bumming, and barely employedwhen we had the good fortune to live off Rose and Pacific Avenues in Venice, with a more enterprising mate paying the lion's share of the rent. We'd drag our frayed cuffs through Rose, its main drag ending not on today's Whole Foods pick-up scene, but in a damned shady Big Lots housing some kind of black market and a still-present laundromat.
The street beat with a scrappy menagerie of Volkswagen gypsies, red-eyed surfers, Groundwork-glued go-getters, shopping-cart scroungers, gym rats, trust-fund brats, working families, Krisha devotees, hot freaks, and beach cruisers bent on burritos at La Isla Bonita, without much of a hub save for The Venice Family Clinic. We probably weren't the only ones with visions, but we could definitely see the near-future coming to Rose, perfectly suited to seizure from offbeat galleries, funky shops, and bustling restaurants.
The prophecies became reality overnight, not quite as gradual or cool as imagined. The prevailing talk of Rose's quick transformation foresees an Abbot-Kinney-like, yuppie-cloaked Venice nucleus, which sounds about right. Suddenly, it feels strange to jockey for parking, to be confronted by a sea of chiseled, bronzed triceps wrapped around yoga mats below an unsightly condo sporting a hipster's handlebar mustache as its logo and strapped with its own Cafe Gratitude.
It's weird to shield yourself from the shrieks as you pass the block's choked wine and beer bars that first rolled out the welcome mat to this designer stroller set. Off-putting to get a warning from Superba's courteous calculator that you have 75 minutes to conclude dinner before a prominent party will chase you off the patio as you're seated in a stool resembling grandpa's bedside commode aside a jam of people you didn't even know ventured north of Gjelina. Kind of odd to find yourself next to Gary Baseman as he doodles an antlered girl into a black book. Actually, that part is killer.
The first time we heard of Superba chef Jason Neroni was through a much different neighborhood surviving a similar stress test. Neroni was earning serious critical kudos for stepping into Wylie Dufresne's sizable shoes at New York's 71 Clinton Fresh Food, a barrier-busting restaurant that helped alter the Lower East Side while we were living off of Punjabi plates in a Delancey Street hole-of-shite, back when that thoroughfare was better known for senior smack dealers and gator shoe stores than the collegiate-friendly playground it resembles today. In 2009, Neroni returned to his native Southern California to garner further raves for his pasta creations at Larchmont favorite Osteria La Buca.
Having launched Superba this summer as a modern pastaria with Pitfire Pizza head-honcho Paul Hibler, Neroni now has his own roost to command, which he does front and center under the beamed eyes of Western film cowboy and a Brixton brood cap, cutting a solid screwface in his open kitchen and showcasing a fertile flare for innovation in handmade pastas and house-made salumis. From day one, the locals have flocked, making a nightly competition out of nabbing a seat anytime past 7:00 P.M.
Anyone with a faded copy of Chez Panisse Pastasis versed in California cuisine's long love affair with Italian cooking. While Alice Waters' Italian dialogue carries a ProvenÃ§al accent, Neroni's bears a distinct Southern Californian lilt steeped in our region's contemporary culinary fixations that value Japanese, Mediterranean, and Mexican flavors almost as much as regular trips to the farmers market. Seasonal freshness and unexpected combinations crown the chef's ever-morphing menu, as found in a salad of raw squash paired with Sungold tomatoes and the chef's pistachio aioli, or with charred figs taking their place on the plate with burrata, walnuts, and opal basil mustard and mint.
His fist-sized meatballs ring with the flavors of pure pork and a balanced heat, molded from a blend of chorizo and ricotta, and substituting marinara with a jalapeno salsa verde, an ideal way to jump into his flavor pool. Neroni's juicy porchetta di testa, disguised as pastrami on rye, flips the script much as his rillette breaks so many porky patterns by using slow-cooked pheasant set off by pickled mushrooms.
The chef's sticky, sweet fried chicken, much more flavorful than some of the region's recent arrivals, may not be crisp-skinned enough to hit our top five, the oily juices possibly tempered for the ocean-side audience, but definitely no where near dry, landing with a snowfall of umami-packing shredded Parm and bearing a perfect sweet-spicy tension between a red wine glaze and scatter of pickled chilies. On the other side, a summer melon salad is refreshing and cool, though the sweet, ripe fruit, served with cubes of ricotta salata, mint, and schmatta of smoked ham, dominate a light Thai vinaigrette that sounds intriguing on the menu. Similarly, a server's insistence to completely stir a sterling duck egg into an otherwise delicious arrangement of crispy broccoli tops mopping up a rich dashi finds the ovum overwhelmed.
Much harder to find a lapse with the cold cuts and pastas. Neroni's personal, passionate inventions are sensibly composed for the maximum in memorable flavor and feel. A sinfully slick texture coats every strand of the chef's spaghettini nero with squid puttanesca, an opulent, gooey comfort yielding to the long finish of a sea urchin's buttery, Pacific-tinged taste.
Neroni's excellent carbonara offers similarly rich, creamy beauty in the intricate, restrained flavor of a smoked bucatini that soaks in a soft, split egg, all perfectly foiled by the salt and natural flavor in his pancetta, its clearest star still the bright bursts of Tellicherry pepper sporadically sounding off. Casarecce, under a few fried sardines, hits the table in stiff, parched braids, needing a thorough toss to expose the light but assertive assets of preserved lemon, ample garlic, and lovage with the chef's chewy crush of bottarga bread crumbs, a taste truly evoking the summer evenings of our Cal-Italian childhood dinners.
Other tempting menu items we're yet to try after three visits include garganelli with beans from Rancho Gordo, kale pesto, and pheasant, a whole wheat rigatoni cacio e pepe with 24-month aged Pecorino, burrata gnocchi with hazelnut bread crumbs, crested macaroni with mussels, pequillo pepper salsa, and chorizo, and Neroni's sweet corn agnolotti with Dungeness crab, one of his beloved signatures from La Buca. The menu and success of the pastas will surely bring people back to satisfy curiosity, the performance of the kitchen leading to expectations of fulfillment.
And so it goes that things do change; Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, often depending on the size of one's savings. Just as Rose may indeed turn into "the new Abbot Kinney," the real A.K. is trembling at the thought of becoming the next Rodeo Drive under its spiking rents. Meanwhile Third Street, jutting right off of Rose, looks to be turning into a small stretch of Skid Row.
With the uncertain change that comes under "urban redevelopment," "gentrification," or whatever you call it, many lament the neighborhood character we stand to lose. At least with a place like Superba, we can still celebrate the resultant blessings found in an exciting, original, and well-executed restaurant. That is, until the more powerful party arrives to sweep us off the patio.
Superba Snack Bar, 533 Rose Ave. Venice; 310-399-6400.