Revisiting La Vecchia Cucina, a Longtime Santa Monica Favorite

In praise of neighborhood restaurants, forgotten far too often in the rush to try the hot and trendy new place

Doesn’t everyone love a neighborhood restaurant, even if it’s not exactly in your hood? La Vecchia Cucina on Main Street in Santa Monica sits among the newly opened restaurants getting plenty of attention. Good for those new kids on the block, but give me this neighborhood Italian any day.

Opened by brothers Mark and Anthony Mollica 15 years ago, La Vecchia Cucina serves exceptional northern Italian home cooking. The dining room buzzes with friends, families, first dates, and everything in between—debating orders, sharing bites, all swearing to be back soon. It’s casual and comfortable but grown up with white tablecloths in the single dining room. There’s even reasonably priced parking behind the restaurant. A miracle in Santa Monica.

The brothers, Chef Mark and Anthony, who’s in charge of the front of the house, didn’t come from a restaurateur family, but Mark says he wanted to cook after trying his hand at other pursuits. Even though their family wasn’t sure about the restaurant business, the brothers went for it, proving their fears unnecessary. Their Northern Italian home cooking is better than a neighborhood place needs to be; the well-filled dining rooms attest to that.

Even their Happy Hour is a step above, with cocktails ($10) and house wines ($7), poured by bartender Kevin, a master of the Old Fashioned. The menu is substantial, with seafood salad ($10) on par with much fancier restaurants, and affordable pizzas and pastas ($8-$10). 

Burrata salad
The Burrata amd Tomato salad is a masterpiece of simplcity

Strangers and old friends compare notes on their orders and offer recommendations to newcomers; in fact, it’s where I first discovered La Vecchia. I came for a deal and stayed for dinner.

The hosts greet customers with a welcoming smile asking if they have a preference for indoors or out on the patio. We stayed inside, as it was a chilly winter night—a perfect one for Italian food. 

We started with Fiore Di Zucca Fritti ($16) fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella and ptarmigan. It’s one of the best I’ve had, with the crisp blossoms encasing the creamy cheese. The Burrata Salad ($19) is a masterpiece of simplicity. Every bite of the house-made burrata cheese, heirloom tomatoes and San Daniele prosciutto is divine and finished with aged balsamic vinegar, it’s an ode to the very best elements presented without artifice.

Lamb ragu pasta
Casareccia All Agnello is the perfect pasta for a cozy night at La Vecchia Cucina

Of course. we had to try pasta from the list of 15 options. We chose Casareccia All’Agnello ($30), a hearty dish of braised lamb shank ragu topped with Italian buffalo milk ricotta and basil. The combination of curated ingredients made this so much more than a bowl of noodles with sauce. The centerpiece of our meal was the Ossobuco Alla Romana ($38). The Italian at the table pronounced it even better than her own version. The center-cut veal shank is braised for hours with homemade veal stock, vegetables and wine. But be warned, you can’t hurry this cuisine. It arrives at the table in all its glory including the precious marrow with a special spoon for dipping into the delicious center of the bone.

We couldn’t possibly have eaten dessert, though we hear they’re good. Instead, the ever-attentive Kevin appeared with glasses of Moscato, which he told us we must taste “like an ocean mist from heaven.” He was right.

La Vecchia Cucina Santa Monica
2654 Main Street,
Santa Monica
Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Fri. and Sat. 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. 

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.