Along the packed strip of Culver Blvd, the restaurant per capita ratio is overwhelmingly high. And though there are plenty of recent high-profile transplants to Culver City — Roberta’s new outpost at Platform, the impending arrival of London’s St John at that same mall — my heart is currently with Ugo, an authentic Italian restaurant and cafe that has been a local institution for almost twenty years. Since 2002, Ugo has been the go-to spot for authentic Neapolitan pizza, which is only available at the Culver location, but they are also known for accessible Italian bites all across Los Angeles via outposts in Santa Monica and Downtown. Not only that, but their homemade gelato and cannolis elevate these classic desserts from cheap tourist fare back into the magical talismans they are in their home country.
Founded and owned by its namesake, Ugo Pascarella, a second-generation Italian with more passion for and knowledge of the cuisine than most restaurateurs I’ve ever met, the flagship location in Culver City remains a neighborhood staple. As far as affordability, the daily specials and happy hour pricing at this location are beyond generous, with Aperol Spritzes and Negronis for a cool $6 and and Margherita, Prosciutto and Picante pizzas for just $7 from 3-7 PM every Monday through Thursday. If that sounds too good to be true, there’s also an $8 meat and cheese plate, wine by the glass for $7, and a pitcher of Sangria that serves four for $18.
While plenty of the other restaurants in Culver’s historic downtown are wildly overpriced, Ugo relies on its quality and reputation to bring customers back after hooking them on the happy hour. Dispelling the idea that food has to be expensive to be excellent, these small bites and early cocktails would’ve been enough to send me on my way happy on a normal evening, but exploring the rest of the menu was a full night’s work, a task that I was happy to commit myself to. The massive restaurant on the corner of Culver and Cardiff Ave offers indoor and outdoor seating, and sitting outside along the busy strip makes for great people watching in the early, warm spring.
One of the other classic Italian appetizers I’ve become increasingly fond of is stuffed squash blossoms. Basically, take one of the healthiest vegetables there is, hollow it out to fill it with soft cheese, then bread and deep fry it? Ugo offers this signature dish, Fiori Di Zucca, with the small addition of diced carrots and zucchini mixed in with the ricotta filling, new ingredients to me. The other vegetables added a slightly different crunch, offering a nice textural balance to the crispy squash, semi-sweet cheese, and zippy breading. Like most of the apps, this one hovers right around $15 and is more than enough to satisfy two people.
Alongside a small arugula salad dotted with tomatoes and mozzarella, we also enjoyed some of the restaurant’s signature pizza, and I barely even want to call out which ones, because they’re all amazing. Anchored with a signature in-house pizza dough that’s quite literally approved by from Naples, Italy, the toppings are delicious but the dough is what makes it a pie. As part of the the VPN Association of Naples, the association’s rather prestigious certification ensures that the way Ugo makes pizza, and the ingredients they use, is up to par with ancient Neapolitan practices. When they’re not on happy hour, pizzas run anywhere in the range of $13-$20, and are worth every penny.
And though plenty of places that specialize in pizza let their pasta options drag in comparison, somehow the pasta at Ugo rivals anything else on the menu. First, we shared a pasta special, the Panna E Prosciutto, with cream sauce and peas, finished in an aged 24-month parmesan cheese wheel right at the table because I love anything that’s interactive or involves fanfare. We followed this up with fresh made gnocchi — aka potato dumplings —with basil pesto, though it can also come with Marinara, Pomodoro, or four cheese sauce for $19.
Already stuffed at this point, it was still necessary to try what many consider the restaurant’s pièce de résistance, their cannoli. Recently spotlighted for their sweet contribution to the decadent festival Carnevale — think Mardi Gras, for Italians — Ugo’s offerings include traditional pistachio filling alongside more selection like seasonal chocolate and strawberry-filled options. As you’d expect, these Sicilian pastries are a heady mix of flaky dough and rich cream, dusted with pistachios and powdered sugar.
It’s your call whether you finish with grappa or espresso, but our choice of the former led to some of the best I’ve ever had, sweet and citrusy with all the strength I’ve come to expect from this strong-tasting liquor. A tiny taste of lemon gelato on my way out cemented my firm understanding that I literally couldn’t eat anything more, but damn, there’s nothing like indulging in an Italian feast every once and a while. Next time you’re in the mood for that decadence, or just craving cannoli, head over to one of Culver’s longest running locally-owned institutions.