Prima Donna spread
All photos courtesy of Prima Donna

The RundownLos Angeles

Everything You Need To Know About Prima Donna in Culver City


“Fun” is the most appropriate way to describe Prima Donna, Culver City’s newest Italian restaurant. The space is large with whitewashed brick walls. The bare bulbs are turned down low, keeping the large space feeling classy and intimate. A few pieces of art, drawn from Italian cinema, add a poppy touch. The most striking element of the space is the bar, with a beautiful array of colorful bottles and lush plants. 

The menu, a greatest hits tour through popular Italian dishes with a low-key Sicilian influences, should please casual diners as well as pasta fiends. Designed to suit a variety of palates, with all-day offerings to boot, it’s a solid bet for working lunches and large groups, so keep it in your back pocket next time you’re in Culver City. 

The credit goes to Skye Strauss, Paul Pruitt, Alex Racioppi, and chef Michael Santoro, the braintrust behind Mosaic hospitality group, which owns Prima Donna along with several nearby concepts. “It’s serious cooking,” Santoro says, but it’s also “just a super fun spot.” Here’s everything you need to know before you go. 

A Quick Turnaround

Located at the corner of Washington and National boulevards, the restaurant is on the ground floor of the same building as The Shay, a Hyatt hotel sitting between Platform L.A., the upscale shopping center, and Ivy Station, a mixed retail and office complex. (Mosaic also oversees the Canopy Club, on the roof of The Shay.

For the past few years, the space was occupied by another Italian restaurant, Etta, imported from Chicago. Etta held its last day of service on December 31, and Prima Donna opened just three days later. “It was a slingshot turnaround in 72 hours,” says Santoro, Mosaic’s chief culinary officer. The existing staff was crucial to making that happen — most Etta employees chose to stay on at Prima Donna. 

Prima Donna spritz
An “Angeleno Spritz” and other riffs on classic cockails.
Prima Donna cocktail

The Chef Has Quite the Résumé

“All I know is cooking. It’s the only thing I was really ever good at,” Santoro says. He grew up in Cleveland and studied at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island before heading to Europe, where he worked at The Fat Duck outside of London and at Mugaritz in Spain. He put in stints in New York, working with Paul Liebrandt to open Gilt, before moving into the hotel world, including a stint as executive chef of the Beverly Hills Hotel

Along the way, he earned both a James Beard nomination for Outstanding Chef Mid-Atlantic and a Rising Star Chef nomination. He also served as the culinary director of American Gonzo, the company responsible for perennially popular L.A. spots Pitfire Pizza, American Beauty, and Superba Food & Bread. In fact, at Superba, he worked with Etta’s chef de cuisine, Sam Garcia, who remained in place when the restaurant became Prima Donna.

Prima Donna arancini
Wild mushroom arancini.
Prima Donna arancini
Wild mushroom arancini.

The Menu Leans Sicilian

Santoro’s ancestors come from Sicily. His grandfather was the first member of the family to be born in the United States. “Sicily has been ruled by France, Spain, England, and the Moors. So many different influences have come through there, so the cuisine is an amazing blend of all the best ingredients from different cultures, used in this specific Sicilian way,” he says.

You can spot the Sicilian influences in the wild mushroom arancini, which arrive creamy and cheesy, served alongside a black truffle aioli; and the yellowtail crudo, served with a Sicilian olivada, a spread that’s made from Castelvetrano and kalamata olives, capers, and citrus that’s finished with a splash of Calabrian chile oil. 

There are plenty of pan-Italian classics, too, like eggplant parmigiana and lamb meatballs, and not-so-classics, like delicata squash dressed with pesto and burrata, or grilled prawns dusted with fennel pollen and burnt lemon. The standouts of the half-dozen fresh pastas include the tortellini, which get extra oomph from ricotta smoked in the wood-fired oven, and a lobster spaghettini with saffron-infused noodles tossed in a light pomodoro. 

This being a hotel restaurant, there’s breakfast and brunch, too, with egg-and-mortadella sandwiches, cacio e pepe eggs, and lemon ricotta pancakes, for good measure. 

Prima Donna pizza
Prima Donna pizza

About Those Pies

Prima Donna’s pizzas are canotto-style, a twist on Neapolitan pizza. The word “canotto” (which means dinghy or raft in Italian) refers to the thick, exaggerated rim on the pizza crust. “In Naples, you see the purists making Neapolitan-style on pizza, which I find can be a little bit soggy,” Santoro says. “We wanted to highlight the crust, which is really fluffy but still crispy and holds its topping.”

Toppings range from a straightforward margherita to blue cheese, hazelnuts, and figs. The standout is the White Lotus, inspired by the Sicily-set second season of the murderous HBO show: a white pizza with fennel sausage, potatoes, red onions, and caciocavallo. If you’re a big spender or want something over-the-top for the ‘gram, there’s the Prima Donna, a $72 pie topped with Kaluga caviar, freshly shaved black truffles, 24-month prosciutto, 20-year balsamic vinegar, and black truffle honey ricotta. 

Prime Donna dry-aged branzino
Dry-aged branzino.
Prime Donna dry-aged branzino
Dry-aged branzino.

Hot, Hot Heat

When you notice fire icons next on the menu — and you’ll see plenty of them — it doesn’t mean a dish is spicy, it means it has been prepared in the wood-fired oven (a holdover from Etta). Operating at approximately 840°F, Santoro estimates that 80% of the dishes are kissed by its flames. The wood-fired oven is involved in the preparation of everything from pizzas (obviously) to grilled meats like the New York strip steak, the dry-aged orata, and the half lamb rack to veggie options like the broccolini drizzled with a chile vinaigrette and the Brussels sprouts in a tart, creamy bagna càuda.

Drink Up

A smattering of white, rosé, sparkling, and red wines — all Italian, natch — are available by the glass. Among the cocktails, the Lucia Mia, made with hibiscus, lime, tequila, and Cointreau, is a light, floral option, perfect for spring or summer sipping, while the Midnight Nori, with its combo of whiskey and Nonino, has a heavier, wintry feel. A handful of n/a cocktails, and a full coffee bar during the day, round out the drinks.

Elina Shatkin is a multimedia journalist, podcast producer, and filmmaker. She is currently a producer for Good Food at KCRW and has previously worked at LAist/KPCC, L.A. Weekly, and The L.A. Times. Follow her here. Follow Resy, too.