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Delicious Spree LA to Z: F is for Fioretto Trattoria

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LAist is going on a delicious spree around LA from A to Z. This week, we are on F. Today, we visit Fioretto Trattoria, a Tuscan trattoria in Culver City.

Unassuming strip mall dining is no stranger to us, especially here on the Westside, so it was no big surprise to find Fioretto Trattoria in the second spot from the street in a small plaza on Culver Boulevard. For some reason though, we were expecting something more along the lines of Osteria Latini, Toscana, and Vincenti along San Vicente in Brentwood. Fioretto’s name gets lost on the big sign facing the street amongst the varied and sundry businesses listed so we almost missed it. A pub, mini market, chiropractor, dentist, and Curves. If we needed a no-frills 30 minute workout, we would have found that one right away.

The restaurant is unexpectedly tiny, just a plain, square little space with dining room that turns a corner around a small bar and prep area that holds a row of wine bottles standing shoulder to shoulder across the front. We have no idea how big the kitchen is; it is hidden behind a solid swining door behind the bar. There is one large round table toward the back of the room that’s already taken over by early power lunchers, and about five smaller square tables against the walls and front window. Sit anywhere, she calls over her shoulder with a sweeping wave above her head, so we take a table in the corner against the window. Being busy and full at lunch time is a good sign, but really, not difficult to achieve when there are only a half dozen tables.

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Our server, the only one running around the place, is a plain, middle-aged woman with dark, shoulder length wavy hair. For some reason, the name Maude seems to fit her. Right away, even as she dropped off menus, we got a strange bi-polar, slightly unsettled air about her. She smiles, but it seems forced, trying to cover up stress and mild irritation. It almost felt like one more thing and all the effort she's putting into keeping a happy server's appearance would explode into some middle-aged manic episode. She laughs nervously a lot, and has a habit of tucking invisble strands of hair behind her ear when she answers our questions. It appeared like she didn't know exactly how to handle service. I couldn't figure out if she was the owner filling in for a server who called in sick, or perhaps that's just the way she is.

The menu features Tuscan cuisine, with a little bit of everything from appetizers, soup, salads, sandwiches, pizza, pasta, and meats. In about an 11 point font with single spacing, it all fits on one page. Appetizers were familiar like zucchini e calamari or mozarella fritti, as well as a carpaccio and tomato with burrata. We didn't want to over do it, so we passed on the starters as well as the zuppa del giorno, which Maude forgot to tell us about anyway.

There's also a page of specials, which is suspicious, since they have been the same specials for more than three months now. It wouldn't normally make a difference to us, but if Fioretto makes a point to call the regular menu seasonal, then it's strange that the specials run for the same span of time. What makes the specials special? Perhaps it is that they are printed with double spacing and also have a suggested wine pairing (with wine glass icon!) for each item. By the way, the menu very boldly, italicizedly states that splitting dishes will cost you a dollar.

While we were examining the menu, Maude brought out the order for a neighboring table. After she plunked the plates down on their table, we *excuseme*ed, but she held up her finger without looking at me and waddled off at warp speed in the direction of the kitchen. Only when she returned much later than the one-minute finger she held up, to take our order, did it dawn on her that we had asked for her quite some time ago. She was busy and we sympathized with that. All we wanted to know was what it was that she had brought out to the neighboring table - it looked like tiny ladyfingers standing upright in a puddle of red sauce. She seemed nervous looking over her shoulder at the neighboring table, and somewhat exasperated that we had asked. Her breathing was a little troubled. It was the timballo. I ordered it, just because I felt so bad for having asked in the first place. No worries though, there was only one other thing in the list of pastas that looked interesting - fedelini with sauteed scallops, lump crab meat, and garlic white wine sauce. We didn't want to burden her with a question about what the hell fedelini is.

The other dish was off the real specials menu. We weren't quite sure what made penne sauteed with tomatoes and eggplant so special. Risotto di carne, beef risotto on porcini mushroom sauce, was the first time I had ever seen beef in a risotto before. But then we remembered we don't love rice, so in the end, we went with the branzino over shallots, potaotoes, and yellow tomato saffron broth. "Branzino" sure makes striped bass sounds like it's worth 17 dollars, doesn't it?

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We went ahead with a glass of 2004 Valle Martello Trebbiano d'Abruzzo suggested for the branzino and a pinot grigio. Both were refreshing, with a *hmm* that the trebbiano tasted almost too sweet. We took a taste. Tastes like white wine. We were almost to the bottom of our glasses and still our food had not come out from the kitchen. With another *excuseme* we got the finger again (her index finger, not that finger), and we are quite certain she knew why. When she finally came back, there was her nervous, apologetic, self-conscious laugh about trying to get the order out for the large party. Shortly thereafter, our timballo and branzino finally came to the table.

We're not sure what a timballo is, but we are going to guess that it is derived from the same word as timbale, and therefore refers to a drum shape. About fifteen rigatoni, stuffed with smoked chicken, raisins and pine nuts, are placed upright and packed together into a drum shape, sitting in shallow puddle of reddish orange sauce. Mozzarella cheese is melted over the top, which holds the rigatoni to each other so they don't fall apart. The only thing we could think of when we saw it on the table was the way teeny Vienna sausages look, packed into that little pull-top can.

Though it looked interesting in its wide shallow bowl, we didn't like the timballo. The rigatoni were hard. Of course we know what al dente is, but these were hard, as if they had been reheated in a microwave oven with no sauce. Dry around the edges and hard. The description read like the filling combination would taste awesome, but the smoked chicken tasted as though it had been soaked too long in Texas Pete's liquid smoke, completely overpowering everything else. Apart from the flavor, the texture of the filling was so dry that even the red pepper tomato sauce wasn't enough to moisten it. We only ate about three of the rigatoni and left the rest in the bowl. To take home? Sure, because it pains us to waste something, but we were pretty certain the round foil container would take up real estate in the refrigerator for about a week before we would have to throw it out anyway.

The timballo didn't taste good, but the branzino was absolutely terrible. Is that harsh? No? Oh, then we meant it was revolting. From the moment it was placed on the table, we were suspicious because of what it looked like. The branzino was an enormous slab of what looked like gooey, fatty, slimy cellulite skin of a gray, middle-aged mermaid thrown in with a disheveled mess of vegetables that were confused about whether they were to be a bed for the fish, or a sauce on top. Sure, delicious food doesn't always look pretty, but that's a philosophy that usually only applies to the under 21 crowd; as in, dinner for two under 21 dollars. But the branzino was $17, and quantity over quality only works at the Vegas buffets and Cheesecake Factory.

We gave its appearance the benefit of the doubt and hoped that it tasted nothing like it looked. It was worse. We noticed right away that with each blubbery looking bite that our dining companion took, his head would cock slightly then he would pull two to three fish bones out of his mouth and place them on the edge of the bowl. He is polite and well-mannered, so it wasn't that we noticed him doing it, we noticed that he had to do it with every bite that he took of the branzino. We decided to take a taste, and holy shiitake, we couldn't even register the flavor because there were fish scales in my mouth. We tried as discreetly as possible to maneuver the scales between our teeth and into a napkin. Finally, giving up, we just spit the whole bite of half-chewed fish blubber skin, scales, bones and flesh into my napkin. We had no words. We could not express....We don't even know what to say other than fish scales! After that, we didn't try the vegetables in the sauce.

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You would have thought that we learned our lesson, first from the mediocre and disappointing timballo, and second, from the scaly branzino. We must have drank our wine too fast in the beginning and it had taken over our sensibilities because we ordered dessert. Actually, we ordered dessert more because suddenly our server was aggressively chatting away about how amazing the lemon tart is. Maybe she knew about the branzino and was trying to make up for it. Whatever, just bring it.

The lemon tart was pretty on the plate, dusted with powdered sugar and garnished with paper thin slices of lemon. But we think our experience had been so scarring that we couldn't really enjoy it. Our dining companion said it was good, but then again, for him, a week-old grocery doughnut would have tasted good after all those fish bones.

Perhaps Maude was having a slightly bad day. It was gray and gloomy outside, and we admit that we too are LA victim of sunshine-less bad days. Perhaps the timballo and the branzino were cooked exactly as they were supposesd to by Tuscan chef Giani, and it is simply our naive tongue, untrained in Tuscan cuisine that didn't like it. If that's the case, then perhaps we need to make a trip to Tuscany, which we will do long before we ever go back to Fioretto Trattoria. But we're quite certain that in any cuisine, fish bones and scales are not sold as specials.

Fioretto Trattoria
12740 Culver Boulevard (@ Braddock Drive)
Culver City, CA 90066
310.448.8000
http://fioretto.tuscanycuisine.com