THERE ARE MORE than 350 pasta shapes around the world. It doesn’t matter how many different ones I try—bigoli, strozzapreti, trofie, orecchiette, manicotti, penne, spaghettini or ravioli—discovering a new shape or strand, tasting a new dish from a different region, is still a revelation.
At Rossoblu, a sexy stunner of a spot from chef Steve Samson and wife Dina Samson, it was the tortellini. Maybe not the pasta itself; we all know the style, pretty little round pillows stuffed with a delicious savory cheese, pork and chicken filling. But with each bite, I think of the time it must take to create hundreds and hundreds of these little dumplings by hand each day. Thankfully, a few handfuls come in each bowl, enough to go around. It’s the broth that really makes my taste buds sing. Light and bright and still hearty, with a meaty backbone and deep golden hue, every last drop was gone by the time my friends and I were done. This is a dish at the heart of what the Samsons are doing here—flavors from the old country firmly planted in the new.
I like to imagine Steve learning how to make that brodo at the hip of his Italian grandmother in the Bologna countryside, a place he’s visited since he was a youngster and where he and Dina now take their own children. The truth is, he’s an utterly talented chef who really knows his way around a good soup stock. Perhaps it was his time training at restaurants throughout Italy, cooking at Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino in Santa Monica and Las Vegas, or working with David Myers at Sona. Either way—in this day of bone-broth madness—he could probably make a fortune selling the elixir from a kiosk out front.
If you’re going to do two restaurants in this town, definitely make them polar opposites in every way, from the location and decor to the menu and overall vibe. The Samsons have done this in spades with Rossoblu, a big urban space located in the new and still developing City Market South complex in the Fashion District downtown. It couldn’t be more different from their first born, Sotto—a charming, candlelit hideaway near Pico-Robertson.
Built inside a former warehouse, it’sa grand space with high ceilings, industrial accents and a colorful wall mural meant to represent the intersection of Italian tradition and gritty L.A. There’s a gorgeous brass and marble bar on one side, and a pretty patio coming to life as the seasons wear on. The open kitchen, busy bar and chatty guests filling every seat add to the conviviality. The atmosphere is on fire, just like the flames you see shooting up from the grills behind a shield of hanging copper pots and pans.
Both restaurants are Italian, and both offer a personal view of the cuisine seen through a Los Angeles lens. While Sotto highlights dishes you’d find along the southern part of the boot—think wood-fired pizzas and rustic grilled meats—Rossoblu goes straight to the heart of the Emilia-Romagna region.
The menu quite clearly comes from the heart. There are references to Steve’s Italian mother and grandmother everywhere—the minestra nel sacco, little square bread dumplings released from a bag in a bowl of broth at the table, are “mom’s.” Nonna gets credit for the tortellini, as well as the tagliatelle with Bolognese, a pasta dish that’s almost ubiquitous in L.A. now, but few offering as much love as this one. The ribbons of pasta are almost translucent in their thinness, but still sturdy enough to stay slicked with meaty ragu and subtle tomato sauce with each bite. All of the fresh pastas get this sort of attention; no one’s complaining.
The chef and his team are making their own salumi, which serves as a great appetizer or even a meal of its own. A few slices of lonza (or cured pork), imported mortadella and prosciutto di Parma, with a few squares of puffed fried dough, call out for a glass or two of Lambrusco. There are many from which to choose—one of the larger selections in town. Light, fruity and fizzy, a bottle could get you through half a meal.
Entrees are ideal for sharing, from the grilled spot prawns filled with ruby-red roe and butter to the mixed grill with salty housemade sausage and a perfect pork porterhouse. The 40-ounce dry-aged rib-eye is a gorgeous hunk of meat. Served with beans and a mixed salad, it’s a feast for a few.
End with the chocolate torta with cherry gelato or just get a few solo scoops. The flavors change often, usually with the season, and come in the form of nectarine mascarpone, kumquat and cream, or melon sorbetto. Light might be best toward the end of any meal here anyway.
Italian food will never go out of style in L.A. Every neighborhood has at least a few places for pasta and pizza, from mom-and-pop shops to those touting handmade strands and shapes of which few have heard. What makes Rossoblu stand out is Steve’s dedication to serving dishes that are his own, things that aren’t usually seen or, more importantly, easily replicated all over town. That’s what gives this restaurant its edge; it’s why you want to find it. Nonna says so.
1124 San Julian St., L.A., 213.749.1099
Antipasti, $3-$18; primi, $14-$25; secondi, $14-$120; sides, $9-$12; dessert, $6-$10 Tue.-Thu. & Sun., 6-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 6-10:30pm
What to Drink
Lead bartender Brynn Smith uses Italian ingredients and spirits for her classic and seasonal cocktails. Try the heady A Tale of 2 Cities featuring tequila, amaro, cucumber and dry vermouth.
Where to Sit
Head to the far wall to survey the whole scene or cozy up in a sofa banquette in the center of the room to peek at the kitchen
It literally means “red-blue,” which are the official colors of Bologna and the nickname of the Bologna Football Club. Red and blue also creates the dark purple hue of Lambrusco, the effervescent wine from the Emilia-Romagna region.