It’s impossible to talk about the restaurant on the corner of West 6th and Center streets in San Pedro without bringing up the legendary name Papadakis. For decades, 301 W. 6th St. was home to the glorious Papadakis Taverna. To this day, there is a sign at the intersection, declaring it to be Papadakis Square, even though it’s not really a square (just a technicality).
When the Papadakis brothers finally hung up their dancing shoes and the restaurant was replaced by Limani Taverna, it was inevitable that comparisons would be made. Ditto the next inhabitant, the ephemeral Otto Trattoria. And although Pappy’s Seafood has been around longer, with a name reminiscent of Papadakis, it has also gone down the path of all the pulpits.
That said, it can be said persuasively that the actual restaurant below the sign for Papadakis Square is the best restaurant to fill the space since, well, Papadakis itself. Good enough that John Papadakis was recently spotted having lunch there – a long lunch with friends, which he serenaded in his latest incarnation, as Latter Day Sinatra. And very good at that.
In effect, La Bocca Felice is a very nice space to enjoy a large plate of calamari fritti and lots of homemade pasta. Or more accurately, spaces – there’s the outdoor patio on Center Street, as well as the main dining room and a series of private rooms that I suspect have always been there, albeit in their heyday, the hall main was where everyone wanted to be.
While John Papadakis lunched and sang outside, a graduation party took up most of the great hall. La Bocca has become a gathering place for locals. No one danced with the owner, but everyone ate a lot. And having, as its name suggests, “very happy mouths”.
Much of that is down to owner, cheerful presence and culinary overseer Nima Karimi – born in Iran, raised in Norway and a lover of all things Italian. Its restaurant roots include Matteo’s Pizzeria, Sebastian’s Mediterranean, and a dazzling pizza oven in the main room, imported from Italy, and resembling an oven with Renaissance roots that’s been upgraded for modern times. He throws a hell of a thin pie.
The oven has deep Italian roots, as does the food. It is a restaurant with great respect for tradition and a love of the classic. Despite Nima’s roots in Iran and Norway, the cuisine is traditional, old school Italian, elegantly prepared, carefully prepared – a fine dining experience at reasonable prices.
Even pizzas, which these days can go way beyond that, are the pies we’ve all loved for so long, albeit with the occasional quirk. Prosciutto di Parma with shavings of Reggiano. The Mediterranean with pesto and artichoke. La Diavola with pepperoni and Calabrese salame (and homemade chili paste, to live up to its name!). Pancetta with sliced Yukon potatoes. And weirdly the pepperoni pizza, with a note that says, “That’s because I had no choice.”
The bruschetta topped with prosciutto, pesto and burrata is a must-try appetizer; it will disappear in the blink of an eye. I love the Neapolitan pepata di cozze – steamed mussels with white wine, lemon and garlic, an almost perfect dish. The gamberi alla busara is as tasty as it is joyful, the prawns roasted in their garlic shell. The squid fritti bites with the best of them.
There are four salads, including one with big chunks of grilled octopus – so chewy, yet so good. And the pappardelle alla bolognese is as good as any in town, the thick homemade pasta with incredible texture that clings to lots of homemade sauce. The pappardelle is also accompanied by a ragout of short ribs, lobster and porcini mushrooms. It’s happiness wrapped around a fork.
If you need more, and I’m not sure you will, there are two veal dishes, two chicken dishes, three seafood dishes.
There are also four desserts, all homemade daily; the tiramisu defines the dish. But above all, it feels like a very Italian experience, where the meal can last from midday to evening, where there is really no rush, and anyway, in this Happy Mouth, all is well with the world.
Hopefully, when you visit, John Papadakis will be singing at a nearby table with his friends. How much happier can a mouth – and the rest of you – be?
La Bocca Felice
- Evaluation: 3 stars
- Address: 301 W. 6th St., San Pedro
- Information: 310-935-2135; www.bfelice.com
- Kitchen: Classic Italian – as the menu says, “Where sea meets land”
- When: Lunch, Friday to Sunday; dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
- Atmosphere: Occupying the space that for many years housed the legendary Papadakis Taverna, diners now enjoy the cheerful flavors of Italy, with plenty of private rooms available for rowdy parties.
- Details: Full bar; reservations essential
- Prices: About $45 per person
- On the menu: 9 Antipasti ($14-$23), 4 Insalata ($14-$23), 14 Pasta ($19-MP), 8 Appetizers ($27-MP), 8 Pizzas ($13-$16)
- Credit card: CM, V
- What do the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth the trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, if not outstanding. Worth the trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A great place to go for a meal. Worth the trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic.) 0 (Honestly not worth it describe.)