By Gina Ruccione, Cuisine and Restaurant Writer
Wants, needs and cravings vacillate with varying moods, but one thing we can all agree upon is that service rules.
At L’Opera in downtown Long Beach, the service is extraordinary. These are not young college students waiting tables between midterms. These are restaurant industry professionals and people who absolutely love what they do — not easy to find in any industry. These people provide a heightened attention to detail and willingness to please. I have never experienced that in any other restaurant, ever.
I’m hardly a pretentious foodie, but when I go out to eat I bring expectations. When it comes to food and service there should be no room for error, especially not on Pine Avenue in downtown Long Beach. The area has essentially branded itself as restaurant row. There’s just too much competition to get away with subpar food or bad service.
L’Opera’s reputation precedes it: excellent food, amazing service and beautiful atmosphere.
With a staggering list of accolades from various publications and organizations, there’s a reason L’Opera is synonymous with fine dining and participates in events like the Long Beach Grand Cru— the annual wine competition and tasting event that caters to the upper echelon. Not to mention, many of the Long Beach Grand Prix race car drivers are piled in there before and after races.
Executive Chef Walter Cotta has been at L’Opera for more than 25 years, recreating traditional Northern Italian fare, with the same joie de vivre he’s had since the very beginning. Unlike many chefs, Cotta is willing to go off menu to cater to his regulars—a rarity in the restaurant business. It’s more common to see a chef throw a plate at a wall than accommodate menu changes and substitutions.
Of course, I don’t recommend you order off menu. In fact, there are many dishes I would recommend like the butternut squash ravioli in a light but spicy marinara with fried sage. This is a well known dish in most Italian restaurants, but rarely do I see a butternut ravioli accompanied with anything other than a brown butter sauce.
I was skeptical at first, but I enjoyed it immensely. The daily specials shouldn’t be missed either. They might not all boast traditional Italian flavors, but they are crowd favorites and utilize seasonal ingredients. The octopus and scallop carpaccio was exceptional—think blood orange slices, basil oil, chili salt and crushed walnuts. This is not on the menu, but damn, it should be! It’s one of those dishes you think about after the fact and days later still makes you smile.
Cotta isn’t the only permanent fixture at the restaurant. Most of the staff has been there for decades, not to be confused with bitter old servers shuffling around in orthopedic shoes as they pour lukewarm cups of decaf coffee. In true Italian tradition, the staff is like family.
Scott Fisher, the sommelier, has worked at L’Opera longer than I’ve been alive. If you happen to be seated in his section,be prepared for a truly fine dining experience. Fisher’s knowledge of wine is almost unparalleled, but he is incredibly friendly, engaging and he approached the table with a “let’s play” attitude. Let him take the wheel and bring out his own recommendations for both food and wine
Speaking of wine, L’Opera is known for its vast collection of high end, Old World Italian wines.
For those who appreciate a history lesson, L’Opera used to be a bank building, so all wine is stored underneath the building in the vault. There’s actually a tunnel between L’Opera and what is now known as the Federal Bar directly across the street. If anyone is interested in planning a wine heist, I’ve got a friend with a Toyota Prius for a clean getaway.
Details: (562) 491-0066, www.lopera.com
Venue: L’Opera,101 Pine Street, Long Beach
A member of the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association, Gina Ruccione has traveled throughout Europe and Asia and has lived in almost every nook of Los Angeles County. You can visit her website at www.foodfashionfoolishfornication.com.