I don't know if it's because of my upbringing by frugal Chinese parents or if it's something else, but I'll be the first to admit that I'm straight up ghetto. No, I don't mean that have ultra-long acrylic fingernails with gems on them or that I line my lips with lipliner a few shades darker than my lip color or that I drive a souped-up and lowered Honda Civic. On the outside, I seem very much like a refined person. I like to think that I dress pretty nicely and that I have pretty good taste in "things." But on the inside, oooh watch out. I'm loud, I'm cheap and I don't care. (But I do have tact--does that count?)
It doesn't mean that I don't enjoy some of the finer things in life like say, nice dinners and good food. Don't trip though, my frugal and ghetto ass will somehow shine through. So on one hand I was thrilled when my friends chose Santa Monica's Via Veneto for a Girl's Night Out; on the other, I knew this place would cost me as much as double what I normally pay for a meal and that because of that, I had to get the upper hand.
First things first, I did not valet. Nope, Pam finds street parking and walks to her destination when at all possible, which I will admit is nearly impossible in certain neighborhoods like West Hollywood, but on Main Street in Santa Monica??? P'shaw, piece of cake even if it did mean circling the block a few times. I found a meter a short half-block away which cost me only about a buck in coins. (Parking's enforced 'til 10pm you know) So much better than the several bucks I would have had to dish out to have some stranger park my car.
Small and slim but sultry, Via Veneto's space appeals more to my external refined side. It's a narrow but lofty room with soaring ceilings and walls finished with that yellow-ochre effect that just seems to pick up candlelight beautifully. Its tables are arranged closely but cozily giving the restaurant's atmosphere even more warmth and energy. An added bonus: Via Veneto's owner is Warren Cuccurullo of 90's decade Duran Duran fame. Not that I cared so much about the band at the time, but hey, anyone that worked that closely with my childhood heartthrobs--that is, the original five members of the eighties--is pretty cool in my book.
Cuccurullo's eatery was packed for a weekday night making the seating arrangements extra cozy. But my girls and I were lucky enough to score a table located in one of the restaurant's front bay windows which gave us a little more privacy while also allowing us to partake in the restaurant's energetic vibe. Our waiter kind of had this skinny, pointy goatee thing going and looked like he could have been a bard transported in from the 17th century. In either a real live Italian accent or just a really good fake one, he asked us "Would you ladies like flat or sparkling water tonight?" To which I responded, "Just regular water please." Immediately, you could see the "Oh, so you're gonna be one of those kinds of tables" look on his face. "You mean tap water???" he asked. "Yup," I replied, and away he went. I'm not going to fall for that trick, bucko. You think you can charge me over five bucks for a fancy bottle of water? I don't think so.
If I got sticker shock from Via Veneto's menu prices, I can only imagine what kind of heart attack my parents would have gotten. I perused their simple Northern Italian menu for a bit--pasta e fagioli soup for 10 bucks, risottos for just under 30, meat dishes for just under 40--when Italian bard waiter guy (we'll call him Sir Waiter from now on) came back to recite the night's specials. It was about a 4 minute recital, done with hardly a breath and perfectly detailed, but so long that I could only pick up things about langostini and filet mignon and truffles here and there; we were convinced that our waiter had to be an actor of some sort, if not now then for sure in a previous life, like say, in Elizabethan times? And oh, by the way, I didn't even wanna know how much those specials cost, so I stuck to ordering off the regular menu.
See, I'm not lying!
But wait, I'm not done. Check this out OK? Thirty-eight dollars for a HALF bottle of chianti. "Wait, what was that?" you say. You heard me. Thirty-eight dollars for a half bottle of chianti. (I could hear my parents already: "Ai-yaaaaah!!!") No Girls Night Out is complete without alcohol of some sort, so three out of five of us opted to split a bottle of wine. "Here, you pick," my friend told me as she handed me the wine list. "An Italian red wine would be nice to go with our tomato based ragus," I thought to myself, "Hmm, maybe a Brunnelo or...WHAT THE FUCK??? 98 dollars???? 105 dollars??? Dammit, I work hard for my money and I ain't spending it on a bottle of outrageously marked-up wine. Fuck THAT." I finally found a half bottle of a 1995 chianti for under 40, which may have been more expensive per liter, but considering that I was limiting myself to one glass anyways, this was the best option. I think our decision frustrated Sir Waiter even more.
He came back shortly with our pop-bottle, oops, I mean our teeny little half-bottle of thirty eight dollar chianti and presented it to us in sommelier fashion. "Uh, 'kay," I chuckled and all my girls giggled in a similar fashion. I could tell he really, really hated us as he opened the itty bitty bottle and poured for me to taste. What the hell did he expect? Should I have said, "Oh, that bottle looks simply divine!" in my best yacht voice? Anyways, I took my first sniff and sip. "Great," I told him, as he filled three of our large stems only about a quarter full. At least our medium bodied, slightly-acidic-for-good-food-pairing chianti, whose maker I cannot recall but was exceptionally smooth, was good. But hell, it better have been for thirty eight bucks.
We whet our appetite with a couple of free things--rosemary bread, olive oil, and green olives--and a couple of things that were not. For appetizers, we chose an ahi tuna tartare and a grilled calamari dish for which we got a "perfetto" and an "okey-dokey" hand signal from Sir Waiter upon ordering. Was it because he was surprised and pleased that we actually ordered something in addition to our entrees? Or was it because we were a table of Asian girls and both appetizer dishes tasted, well, Asian??? That I kind of expected from the tuna tartare which obviously reminded me of spicy tuna without so much spice. The ahi was fresh, or at least from what I could tell after all the lemon and finely chopped scallion seasonings were added. Two slices of buttered and grilled country bread provided for an Italian touch, whereas I'm normally more used to the Asian version--crispy rice cakes--to go with my tuna. If there's anything I can detect, it's the taste and smell of Chinese food, and that's exactly what I tasted of our grilled calamari appetizer. Here, small but tender pieces of calamari were grilled with diced tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and basil. A skewer of plump shrimp and meaty scallops sat off to the side. I could be wrong and probably am, but I tasted oil, soy sauce and white pepper, making the dish, therefore, taste Chinese. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it was bad; in fact, it was delicious, it's just that I could have gotten something similar at Sam Woo for under 7 bucks.
These are free!
Did my peeps make this?
More Asian persuasion
Simple and hearty, my entree of fettuccine bolognese was my favorite dish of the evening. And the best value, too, at 16 dollars. The fettuccine was cooked perfectly al dente, giving with a slight snap at the touch of the teeth. Its thick meat sauce was hearty without being overbearing making this dish the perfect comfort food. And even better, it went perfectly with our thirty eight dollar half-chianti!
The best dish of the evening!
My friends' entrees were also very delicious. Again, the pastas were cooked to the perfect al dente texture. One of the girls is partial to Via Veneto's penne arrabiata and orders it each time she comes here. It's got that good kind of spiciness that is controlled--a spiciness that lets the flavors of the sauce some through first and then kind of creeps up on you at the end as if somehow timed. It was a little less smoky and garlicky than the arrabiata sauce that I make at home, but was nevertheless delicious. My other friend's ravioli al pomodoro were perfect little al dente pillows filled with spinach and ricotta in a tomato based sauce. Its filling had that nice cheesy saltiness perfected by the texture of spinach, and was not at all dry and bland like many ricotta fillings can be. At 42 dollars, I don't think my friend's grilled langostini entree was worth it, but the those spidery looking crustaceans sure were tasty. Grilled with sea salt and black pepper, the dish was a simple reminder that things out of the sea are a good thing! It prolly also made our waiter very happy that we actually ordered a pricy dish. Fucker.
With prices like this, no wonder it's angry!
Perfect little spinach and cheese pillows
Wanna buy me for 42 bucks?
It was a good thing that we skipped dessert because I could already feel my wallet getting lighter. The damage after tax and tip: $215 for five of us which included a HALF bottle of chianti, two appetizers, and five entrees, four of which were simple pasta dishes. Not much bang for our buck, I'll say. For dinner tomorrow? Instant noodles out of my cupboard. Word.
3009 Main Street
Santa Monica, CA 90405