One of the more engaging new restaurants in Austin has a name you can’t pronounce and a location you don’t know. But I suspect you will learn how to say it and where to find it, because once you visit, the chances are good you’ll be back. The place is L’Oca d’Oro (just ignore the apostrophes and say “Loca Doro”—the name means “the Golden Goose,” but more about that later). It’s location is the Mueller neighborhood, in the northeast part of town, which was the site of the city’s airport before it became a planned residential-retail development set amid ponds, meadows, and trails. Put L’Oca d’Oro’s address in your phone and try not to panic when the voice says, “At the roundabout, take the second exit.”
A couple of months ago, I found myself at L’Oca four times in less than a week—so often, in fact, that manager and co-owner Adam Orman began to say “Hello again” when I appeared at the host stand. Usually when I eat out, I invite friends and make a few concentrated visits. But L’Oca is on my way home, and it was way too tempting to leave work after six o’clock and slide into a seat at the L-shaped counter fronting the open kitchen. Luckily for me, those seats are saved for walk-ins (a.k.a. people who haven’t planned ahead). At first I dreaded being jammed in, but the bar had such a nice energy that by the third visit I was quite looking forward to having my solitary glass of draft Prosecco ($7!) while watching the cooks as they wielded sauté pans and manipulated microgreens with mega-tweezers. As you would expect from the restaurant’s name—and a chef and co-owner named Fiore Tedesco—the menu is contemporary Italian. Tedesco grew up in upstate New York under the eyes of Italian grandparents and broadened his craft at, among other places, Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern.
My first visit was near the end of summer, so I figured I had better try the watermelon salad before it went bye-bye. The rosy cubes of melon were supersweet, nicely set off by the bitterness of arugula and the icy freshness of mint. I did wish that the tart pickled watermelon rind had been cut into tiny accent pieces, though; a large bite tended to overwhelm the other ingredients. For a main course, I snagged the next-to-last serving of the very tall wood-roasted lasagna. Instead of the usual tomato-and-meat-sauce combo, the lightly crisped creation was an umami bomb of lavish cheeses (burrata, taleggio, ricotta) and multiple mushrooms (including lightly fermented powdered shiitakes). For about eight bites, this masterpiece was utterly mesmerizing; then museum fatigue set in. Next time, I’d share it. For dessert, I had the beautifully moist olive oil cake. Baked in a small Bundt pan, it was set off by silky lemon curd and chunky, salty pecan brittle. I couldn’t think of a single thing I would change.
Over the next couple of visits I meandered around the menu. The following night, for a starter I sampled the crostini. The grilled thick-cut bread—topped with roasted pancetta and a heady puree of ripe Asian pears and brown butter—could have been a salty-sweet dessert. The next visit, I hit the jackpot with a fantastic roasted butternut salad: the seductive curls of thin-sliced, subtly smoky squash had been drizzled with a squash-and-orange-juice reduction and sided by meaty roasted pecans. In some mysterious alchemy, the flavors conjured prosciutto and melon.
For entrées, I chose, completely without premeditation, two dishes that reminded me of Mexico and Texas. The plump roasted green peppers stuffed with ciccioli (a spicy pork rillett), amaro-pickled butternut squash, Sonoran wheatberries, and scamorza were ladled with a lush, pale-green pistachio cream that was an emphatic echo of the walnut sauce on Puebla’s famous chiles en nogada. The pork milanesa—the meat in a crackly fried jacket of semolina-flour batter—has counterparts the world over, but what image leaped into my mind? Gourmet chicken-fried steak.
So far, I had only dined solo, and early. But for my last visit, I sweet-talked a friend into helping me tackle a family-style platter. To vary my routine, I even reserved a table for 8 p.m. As we walked past my favorite seats at the counter toward the packed rear dining room, the noise level rose. And rose. And rose some more. By the time we sat down, we were in a tsunami of sound. If my friend hadn’t scooted his chair around to the side of our two-top, we would have had to communicate in sign language.
As planned, we ordered the roasted half chicken fra diavolo. As soon as the overworked waiter dropped it off, we realized he hadn’t brought serving utensils, so we had to flag him down again. (Believe me, it’s not easy to dole out peas with a fork or cut up half a chicken with a table knife.) After all the trouble, the fowl was meh—the skin was nice and crisp but the meat was too salty. Better were the itty-bitty fresh creamer peas that came with it. Even better was an extra side: meltingly soft polenta crowned with a poached egg. For dessert, we shared the s’mores tartufo. I was overwhelmed by this tower of rapturous excess, but my companion was the perfect audience for its bruléed marshmallow cream, hazelnut and barley semifreddos, and cascades of hazelnut-caramel and chocolate sauces.
Before I sat down to write, I called chef Tedesco to chat. We talked about the food, of course, and the name of the restaurant, which was inspired by his daughter’s nickname, Lucy Goose. But I thought the most intriguing part of the conversation was his tale of two restaurants. The first was the lively Italian trattoria in Troy, New York, where he and his parents and siblings used to eat when he was a child. The second was a crowded place in Manhattan he frequented as an adult, sitting alone at the bar and soaking up the good spirits of his fellow diners. “I barely had enough room to eat my pasta,” he said. “I loved it.” It’s no doubt too simple to draw a line from those two experiences to the front and back rooms at L’Oca d’Oro. Tedesco could certainly set me straight, but I’d rather ponder it some more. When I leave work today, I’m taking the second exit at the roundabout and heading for the restaurant’s host stand. “Hello again,” I’ll say say. “Can I possibly get a seat at the bar?”
1900 Simond Ave, Austin (737-212-1876). D Wed–Mon. B Sat & Sun. $$$
Opened: June 15, 2016