RivaBella Ristorante is in West Hollywood on the border of Beverly Hills and within sight of the Sunset Strip. From the outside, RivaBella has the look of an expensive fine dining restaurant. Walk inside and the friendly bar men will offer you a cocktail or a glass of premium wine, then you'll enter a dining room with rustic wooden tables, brick walls and a massive hearth. The spacious restaurant has the feel of an upscale country inn.
RivaBella balances elegance with casual dining. On the evening we had dinner, some diners were dressed in business suits while others wore shorts and colorful sport shirts. A retractable ceiling opens to the sky. Natural light floods into the room through floor to ceiling windows. At night, candles on the tables and strings of white lights give the room a romantic, festive aura. You'll experience the restaurant's theatrical side when you enter the dining room and pass the DJ who is working through a play list of pop songs. Order the mushroom risotto and the waiter brings a cart to the table heavily laden with a Parmigiano Reggiano wheel large enough to fit on a Mini-Cooper.
The server ladles the hot risotto on to the wheel of cheese. As he swirls together the delicate grains of slow cooked Acquerello rice and sautéed mushrooms, the Parmigiano Reggiano yields to the heat forming a more perfect union of rich deliciousness. At the other end of the spectrum, Carmelo, our waiter, encouraged us to order the ice cream prepared table side using liquid nitrogen. The menu describes a dessert that you expect will be a dish of vanilla bean ice cream and a choice of toppings as varied as candied pistachios, chocolate pearls, fresh strawberries, salted caramel and Nutella sauce. But the dessert arrives not in a bowl but on another one of those carts, this time with enough machinery and "smoke" rising into the air to make Willy Wonka swoon. The liquid nitrogen supplies the pyrotechnics. The waiter works the machinery and presides over the transformation of mere mortal ingredients into a memorable sweet feast.
Executive Chef Luigi Fineo and Chef-Partner Gino Angelini created a menu that draws on many traditions. Northern Italian dishes like cavatelli with broccolini come directly from chef Fineo's grandmother's kitchen. So too the bucatini carbonara and shellfish caciucco are classics of Italian cuisine. But the chefs are open to discovery, which is how the popular lamb reuben with pickled cabbage materialized on the menu.
As a starter, we ordered the corn soup with crab. Everyone dipped a spoon into the bowl for a taste. By the time I pulled out my camera, the soup was half gone it was that good. Somehow chef Fineo created a "creamy" soup without cream that tasted like summer. Bits of steamed crab and finely chopped chives were a great addition. I liked the dish so much, chef promised I can come back to the restaurant and he will do a video demonstrating the recipe.
For a salad antipasti we had a plate of prosciutto di Parma topped with wild arugula and chopped burrata. Salty prosciutto was mellowed by the burrata and countered by the spicy arugula.
Chefs Fineo and Angelini are masters of contrasting textures and flavors. That was apparent repeatedly through out the meal. A dish of roasted octopus had the right amount of char to bring out a sweet chewiness that was balanced by oven roasted fingerling potatoes, salty olives and spicy salsa verde.
We enjoyed the strozzapreti with langoustine. The slender, twisted pasta and the soft, pink langoustine paired well together and both benefited from a musky sautéed wild mushrooms-brown butter sauce.
Their preparation of a ricotta chicken breast also made good use of wild mushrooms. The bottom of the flat bowl had a thick pool of sauce flavored with Hen of the Wood mushrooms and Padron peppers.
When we asked about the bone-in ribeye steak, Carmelo said the 20 oz. cut was large enough to share. Covering a rectangular wooden platter, the thick steak had a beautifully charred crust. Seasoned with salmoriglio, the lemon-garlic-chili flake topping brightened the moist, fatty meat. Accompanied with a large side of oven roasted vegetables, the shared steak was perfect for two.
The dessert menu had a good selection of choices. Besides the liquid nitrogen ice cream sundae, there were classics like tiramasu, sfogliatelle, crostata, a selection of gelato, an inventive milk chocolate pana cotta layer cake and sweets fabricated to look like a plate of charcuterie. The desserts sounded delicious but we had eaten too many antipasti and entrees. Carmelo was disappointed that all we wanted to end the meal was a round of double expressos and macchiatos. Next time we'll save room for the sfogliatelle, a favorite from my days living in Providence, Rhode Island and I'd definitely like to be entertained with a nitrogen ice cream sundae.
RivaBella Ristorante, 9201 W. Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90069 (310/278-2060)
David Latt is an Emmy-award winning television producer who turns to cooking to alleviate stress. He shares his experiences with food and his favorite recipes on his blog Men Who Like To Cook.