There’s a dish from Nerano, Italy, that, like most regional Italian food, is transcendent in its simplicity. That dish is spaghetti alla Nerano (or spaghetti with zucchini) and, on paper, it isn’t always a head-turner. But at Nerano, a chic little ristorante in Beverly Hills, the classic dish—twirls of pasta with both fresh zucchini and crispy fried chips, plus squash blossoms and a delicious amount of Italian cheeses—is absolutely perfect. There’s a reason it’s on just about every linen-topped table.
Like the little town on the Amalfi Coast, Nerano is quite the hidden gem. Tucked into a relatively quiet block on South Santa Monica, it’s easy to miss—in fact, I did, several times, as I tried to find it one night. The two-story space is fronted by a few sidewalk tables, sure to be a hit in the spring and summer. Inside, the intimate space is chic but subtle: brick walls covered with William Wegman prints, white tablecloths, a big marble bar and a smattering of tables and booths. Even more clandestine is the upstairs bar, accessed only via elevator behind a big velvet curtain, that sports Ferrari-red sofas and chairs, and a sweet little cocktail lounge for pre-dinner drinks or late-night happy hour.
This is the latest from the group behind Toscana in Brentwood and SY Kitchen in Santa Ynez—owners Andy Brandon-Gordon and Carlo Brandon-Gordon are the second generation of the restaurant family—so there’s already a built-in clientele. But Nerano has quickly become a power lunch and dinner spot for those in the film and television biz, thanks to its close proximity to Century City and Beverly Hills. The Peninsula hotel guests have also found their way down the street, and few famous faces have discovered its charms too (Ryan Seacrest is a fan). But it’s more than just another industry hot spot.
First, there’s chef Michele Lisi, who has a light touch in the kitchen. Having cooked in Rome and, locally, at Vincenti in Brentwood, he is true to his Italian roots, but also has a California sensibility with ingredients. The menu is familiar but memorable: yellowtail crudo with crispy capers and Fresno chiles, a fresh start to any meal; grilled crostini with creamy burrata, beautiful Santa Barbara uni and salty bottarga; and beef carpaccio with a tangy mustard-citrus vinaigrette and aged Parmigiano. Lisi even found a way to make the ubiquitous beet and goat cheese salad taste new with his deconstructed version that marries golden beets and hazelnuts.
Thin, crispy pizzas are good and no-brainers for lunch, but if going for a carb fix, try the pastas. Fluffy ricotta and spinach gnudi with chanterelles, black truffles and toasted sage is an eye-opener, as is the garganelli with richly flavored Black Angus ragu.
A wood-fired grill comes into play with things like fresh Pacific swordfish, giant prawns and whole branzino, which simply come drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, charred lemon and salmoriglio—a lemony, garlic herb sauce that you’ll want to slather on everything. There’s roasted Jidori chicken with herbed root vegetables, and a veal chop that will make any meat lover happy. The big bistecca, a bone-in rib-eye that’s grilled to perfection, comes with whipped fingerling potatoes, and is easily shareable; get the grilled broccolini with breadcrumbs and roasted wild mushrooms with pecorino Toscano on the side.
For dessert, of course there’s panna cotta with fresh berries, and a great olive oil cake. But the nocciolino will knock anyone’s socks off: a glass filled with layers of dark-chocolate mousse, crunchy hazelnut gelato and toasted meringue. It’s eyes-rolling-back good.
Servers with sing-song Italian accents are swift with recommendations, especially with the wines and cocktails. Both lists—overseen by Samantha Johnston for vino, and Toscana vet William Perbellini for spirits—pair perfectly with the food. The by-the-glass list has something for everyone, from a minerally Piedmontese arneis to Kistler’s dynamite pinot noir from the Russian River Valley.
In a sea of Italian restaurants around L.A., opening one that stands out is no easy feat. Taking inspiration from the Amalfi Coast is a good start for Nerano, which brings a breezy but bona fide sense of hospitality to the scene. You might not be sitting under orange umbrellas near the beach, but the pastas, wood-fired specialties and charming room fit this neighborhood—and the West Coast—perfectly.
9960 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310.405.0155
Antipasti, $16-$24; pizza, $19-$36; pasta, $20-$34; entrees, $36-$68; dessert, $12
Lunch: Mon.-Sat., 11:30am-3pm; Sun., 11:30am-2pm. Dinner: Mon.-Wed., 5:30-10:30pm; Thu.-Sat., 5:30-11pm; Sun., 5-10pm
WHERE TO SIT
The restaurant is small and relatively open, so for a bit of privacy, take a table toward the wine room. The big booth near the door is a power spot.
WHAT TO DRINK
You can’t go wrong with an Italian Sazerac, made with Knob Creek rye, amaro Nonino, Cardamaro, absinthe and barrel-aged bitters.
APERITIVO AND HIDEAWAY HOURS
Great food and drink deals can be found at the downstairs bar from 4:30-7pm, and upstairs Mon.-Sat. from 9:30pm on. Cozy nightcap, perhaps?
Originally published in the March issue of Angeleno