By LINDSEY STYRWOLL

When Gino Angelini arrived in Los Angeles in 1995, he was eager to match the success he had achieved in his native Italy. His first gig stateside, a stint at the now-defunct Rex, made him a darling of critics, but that was just a taste of things to come. After opening the influential Vincenti with the former owner of Rex, he moved on to his namesake Angelini Osteria. Despite the small osteria's meteoric rise, his craving for a little more elbow room led to the inception of the more formal La Terza. Four years later, this bright spot is hitting its stride, serving unfussy Italian cuisine with undeniable verve.

For Angelini's new endeavor, he chose a spot on L.A.'s Third Street, a charming area with a good amount of foot traffic. Not so coincidentally, La Terza is Italian for "third." Patrons also come by way of the Orlando, the boutique hotel that houses the restaurant. Though a few comfort foods grace the menu out of obligation, La Terza by no means fits the standard "hotel restaurant" mold. The bilevel space is open and airy, with metallic accents to complement the mostly white interior. Though there are few decorative touches, save for paper lanterns that hang from the vaulted ceilings, the atmosphere is anything but sterile. Wood floors and patio walls add charm and give the room a more comfortable, casual feel.

The restaurant is surprisingly quiet at lunch, especially given the fact that Angelini Osteria is usually a madhouse at this hour. The vibe is calm and relaxed, but the staff snaps to as soon as customers arrive. Despite arriving at the end of lunch service, we are welcomed and assured that the kitchen remains open through the late afternoon hours. We are brought a complimentary amuse bouche of lightly fried shrimp and tastes of white wine as we wait on the open patio for our food to arrive. The staff is both friendly and attentive. Dishes arrive with a flourish as they rearrange our table to accommodate the large plates.

The menu is traditionally divided into primi and secondi courses, with antipasti and salads figuring heavily into the former, the latter including the pastas and entrees. We start with the caprese and beet salad, both featuring fresh burrata. The creamy cheese is still in its casing and pairs wonderfully with both the ripe tomatoes and roasted beets. The tapas platter, while not authentically Italian, includes five different "tastes": artichoke, meatball, scallop, shrimp and a single ravioli. It is great for sharing and a nice way to sample different things. One dish that has carried over from Angelini Osteria's menu and it's every bit as good here is the steamed mussels and clams tarantina in spicy tomato broth. The broth here is key as it is thick enough to stick to the excellent shellfish yet still thin enough to soak up with its garlic crostino accompaniment.

As always, Gino Angelini has the homemade pastas down cold with none of the overcooked stuff lesser Italian places are prone to turn out. The cappellacci are folded like envelopes and filled with butternut squash. Sage leaves are sprinkled on top of the parmigiano sauce drizzled over the tiny pillows with a light hand. The signature tagliolini is served with pan-roasted shrimp. Though the pasta is achingly fresh and the shrimp exquisitely cooked, the sauce is a bit heavy and the lemon and basil are drowned out.

Though the simple meat and fish entrees could be bland and boring in the wrong hands, La Terza's chefs create magic with their unfettered plates. The sauteed rack of lamb is cooked to medium rare with just the right amount of marbling. The meat is tender and juicy without the addition of a complicated sauce, garnished with just mushrooms and mashed potatoes. The flavorful salmon is deeply colored and dressed with a subtle porcini sauce. The restraint shown is inspiring. If only others could follow La Terza's lead.

Before Nancy Silverton opened Pizzeria Mozza and its adjacent osteria, Angelini was lucky enough to land this accomplished pastry chef's hand in creating La Terza's wonderfully executed selection of desserts. A melange of traditional Italian favorites, the offerings are both exciting and elegant without an ounce of pretension. The tiramisu is served in a short glass with the requisite coffee-soaked ladyfingers surrounding the ethereal mascarpone.

The vanilla bean gelato is served "affogato" with a shot of cold espresso poured tableside. For a more summery treat, try the vanilla bean panna cotta. The creamy gelatin is served with a berry coulis, perfect for a hot day. Our favorite is the torta della nonna with pine nuts. Translating into "grandmother's cake," this Italian-style cheesecake made with ricotta is perfection.

With his burgeoning mini-empire, Gino Angelini has earned his reputation as one of the best Italian chefs in town. Though there are no big surprises, the careful preparation of quality ingredients seems like a revelation in his adept hands. This may not be where the crowds are, but it is where they should be. With stellar service that makes you feel like family, La Terza hits all the right notes.


Reviewer Lindsey Styrwoll can be reached at L_Styrwoll@yahoo.com.


LA TERZA
Where: 8384 W. Third St., Los Angeles, 90048. Cross Street: Orlando Avenue
When: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Sunday
What to try: Steamed mussels and clams tarantina, butternut squash cappellacci, pan-roasted salmon with porcini sauce, torta della nonna
Noise Level: Quiet
Meeting Room: Yes, 20-60 people
Parking: Valet at Orlando Hotel, $6/hour
Price Range: Appetizers, $8-$18; entrees, $14-$32
Reservations: (323) 782-8384

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