Michael Ourieff opened his first company, Michael J’s Boston Pizzeria, in Sherman Oaks in 1983. After multiple menu expansions, Ourieff began a catering company. He eventually moved his business to the bottom floor of — wait for it — the Health Research Building of USC Medical Center. But after some time he decided to open a restaurant. That restaurant was 643 North, an Italian-style eatery off Spring Street in Chinatown that opened its doors earlier this month.
It might seem strange to have an Italian restaurant in Chinatown, where one would expect to find big lobster dinners, dim sum and takeout. But what seems like a mix-up of two totally different cultures actually lends itself to a small L.A. history lesson: What is known to Angelenos today as Chinatown was actually Little Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, so 643 North’s location is a little more fitting than one might think.
To begin work on 643 North, Ourieff collaborated with chef Oz Ramuco, who had years of experience in both the kitchen and working in the downtown neighborhood. Ourieff had a background in Italian food, but more of what he described as “pizzeria style,” and he and Ramuco decided they wanted to do something more upscale with a wine list.
For beverages, 643 North hired Adam Acuff, the man behind the posh Asian fusion concept bar the Far Bar, and designed a bar menu and 643 North’s “build your own martini” bar.
The atmosphere of 643 North is modern and trendy but still cozy, with black and silver furniture with warm wooden accents and a wooden ceiling.
Both Ourieff and Ramuco knew 643 North had the right timing for an Italian eatery, as the genre’s popularity has been growing overall. Nonetheless, Ramuco did not want a pepperoni pizza on the menu — he wanted to “keep it fun, keep it exciting” and “walk away from the stereotypes.” And that’s exactly what they did.
Currently, 643 North only has a lunch and dinner menu, with brunch soon to come. The lunch menu has a slightly smaller selection of salads, soups, paninis, pizzas and main courses such as penne alla vodka and veal ravioli. The dinner menu has a greater selection of dishes and includes a pasta and risotto category.
The dinner menu did not list chicken as an option for the Amazing Greens salad, but the chef was happy to add it. This salad was just the right starter and included mixed greens with baby pear tomatoes, a large garlic crouton and slices of aged parmesan tossed in a citronette dressing.
The pizza menu has a wide array of creative combinations, but the San Daniele pizza was especially delicious. This pizza had a pesto sauce as a base and was topped with fresh tomato, mozzarella, wild arugula, lemon oil, parmesan slices and thin slices of prosciutto piled high. The pizza crust was thick enough to hold all these ingredients, but thin enough to eat several slices easily. It had a rustic oven-baked taste and was perfectly crispy and flaky.
Though people normally come to Italian restaurants for a pizza dish, the 643 Burger came recommended. The burger uses prime Niman ranch beef (to which Ramuco adds premium short rib for a more tender patty) along with a red onion jam, sharp cheddar, honey-mustard glazed bacon and lolla rossa lettuce on a brioche bun. The red onion jam included sweet caramelized onions and was complemented by the dark and slightly bitter lettuce. Oftentimes, hamburgers made on a brioche bun have a lot of bread and not a lot of substance, since the bun is so fluffy and buttery; this time, however, the meat was truly the focal point of this burger. It was cooked as ordered and was definitely a hearty portion. The burger was accompanied by a tower of skinny french fries that were simply impossible to put down.
Dessert included typical favorites such as tiramisu and flourless chocolate cake. Save room for the butter cake, which is a cross between bread pudding and pound cake and is topped with slices of strawberries and a dollop of fresh whipped cream. The warm, sinful cake was easily one of the highlights of the meal.
Ramuco admits that the menu will probably change over time. He and Ourieff want to see what the neighborhood responds to, what the audience demographic is and what dishes prove to be crowd favorites. It is only the beginning of the journey for this new Downtown restaurant, which is spearheading the return of an exciting new culinary scene in L.A.’s Chinatown — including restaurants that are good for more than just takeout.
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