The first time I tasted bagna cauda was many years ago. A friend had returned from Italy all excited about an antipasto he tried in a trattoria. He said the server put a warm dish of melted butter, garlic, olive oil and anchovies in front of him along with a platter of raw and grilled vegetables. "The waiter told me to dip the vegetables into the sauce and enjoy," my friend said. We recreated this delicious appetizer at home and were instantly enchanted.
I have never seen bagna cauda, which means "hot bath" in Italian, on a menu in the United States until this week when Edward, Mom and I dined at L'Oca. This newest Italian BYOB in the Fairmount section is a real winner, serving authentic cucina -- which has been difficult to find the past few years. "L'Oca" translates to "goose" in Italian. I presumed this would be offered in some form and it was. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The space is sleek and sparse. The dining room is right up against the open kitchen where three chefs make their magic. We arrived early and, by the time we left, the place was packed, including a family of three with a toddler in tow. (This trattoria, which opened a few weeks ago, is kid-friendly.)
Our server uncorked our wine and advised of the soup and fish of the day. That's it. No specials. That's OK. We all know what "specials" mean -- overpriced run-of-the-mill fare.
The bread arrived warm with extra-virgin olive oil for dipping. Mom tucked into a big bowl of hearty minestrone ($5), rich with fresh vegetables and tiny white beans. The dish was warmed before being brought to the table.
The eye- and appetite-appealing bagna cauda ($13) is priced for two. A large white plate contained grilled eggplant, zucchini and asparagus and fresh roasted red peppers drizzled in the bagna cauda with an accompaniment of imported Italian meats and cheese. Each vegetable was perfectly cooked and beautifully presented, but I would have liked to see a heated ramekin of the sauce for dipping.
Now to the goose, a poultry I love. I have roasted this dark-meat bird once in my life and it is better to roast than to braise it. This is a specialty in England and France at Christmastime, so I was surprised to see it among L'Oca's offerings. Since much of the menu features foods from Piedmont, I can only think the people from this region and farther north enjoy goose. I was right.
Edward and I shared the pappardelle al ragu d'oca ($17), the finest pasta dish we have enjoyed in years. The cooks prepared homemade egg pappardelle, a ribbon pasta that requires a thick, rich ragu to make it perfect. This was excellent in every way. The roasted and braised goose had its rich, succulent, heavenly meat redolent with seasoning. It enhanced the pasta so well I want to call the cooks and ask them how they did this magnificent dish.
Mom loved her "casoncelli alla bresciana" ($14), another pasta dish from Piedmont. This is a classic homemade cheese ravioli topped with a mix of melted butter, fresh sage and walnuts. I understand the restaurants around La Scala in Milan feature this delectably light dish. It is difficult to find the words to describe something so simple, yet prepared with top-quality, fresh ingredients, and sauced just right that it make your taste buds soar.
I rarely order roast chicken out, but a friend recommended I try it at L'Oca. The semi-boneless, organic, free-range half-chicken ($17) was marinated in fresh rosemary, sage, shallots and garlic then encrusted in a tangy horseradish. The poultry was pan-seared then oven-roasted. Oh my, the portion was good-sized and the meaty chicken, which came from a nearby farm, was tender and juicy. My platter came with oven-roasted potatoes and a sauté of wild mushrooms.
Edward ordered bronzino, the fish of the day ($16). This fish has been all the rage for the past five or six years. Some places offering it charge between $21 and $40 and fillet it table-side. If the waiter is not capable of a quick fillet, the fish gets cold. At L'Oca, the fish was already grilled and filleted to perfection. The flesh was sweet, succulent and not a bit overcooked. It also was a bargain. Roasted potatoes and sautéed mushrooms were on the side.
I cannot wait to return to L'Oca. It is one of the finest Italian meals I have enjoyed in years. Portions are generous, the prices, moderate.
The only problem is the sound. When filled -- and it was a capacity house the night we enjoyed dinner -- the place became so loud we could not think or hear anyone speak.
Still, the menu is like one you would find in Italy. Go. Bring a bottle of fine Italian wine and enjoy.
Three tips of the toque to L'Oca.
2025 Fairmount Ave.
Credit cards accepted