The Wine Spectator that just arrived in my mailbox contains a seven-page article entitled “America’s Italian Maestro” about Piero Selvaggio and Valentino. Well, the Valentino in Santa Monica. It is a very good story, though, especially for those who are unaware of Selvaggio’s considerable influence on Italian dining and food in this country. It is extremely impressive.
Part of the reason for the attention of Wine Spectator is its incredible wine program, one of the best in the country, and has been for three decades. The flagship Valentino also has a wine list that is far superior to any local Italian restaurants. Actually, Pappas Bros. is the only Houston restaurant that is even close. The article also contains some interesting recipes, if containing a certain degree of difficulty for most home cooks. Interestingly, the current chef in Santa Monica, who helped create these recipes, Nicola Chessa, cooked at Arcodoro in Houston about a decade ago. Briefly, here is the story of Selavaggio and Valentino:
In late 1972, Selvaggio, twenty-six at the time, and another Italian immigrant, Gianni Paoletti, opened a modest restaurant in what had been a bar on a forlorn stretch of road in Santa Monica, a few miles from the ocean. Serving manicotti, baked mostaccioli, lasagna, Cobb salad, and veal Parmesan, it proved popular right away. At the time, it gave no indication that it would become arguably the most influential Italian restaurant in the last fifty years, providing an example for what Italian food and Italian dining could be in this country.
Selvaggio, originally from southeastern Sicily, bought out the Venetian Paoletti the next year. A few years later, buoyed by research into the contemporary dining scene in northern Italy, Valentino begun to become more truly Italian and more adventurous, aided by a talented chef from the Veneto. The restaurant began introducing products and foodstuffs then unknown like radicchio di Treviso, mozzarella di bufala, burrata, cheeses and the finest olive oils. His dedication was such that he even picked up fresh mozzarella at the redoubtable food section of Harrods in London before there were direct flights between Los Angeles and Italy.
In 1986, Angelo Auriana, another Italian native, took over the kitchen at Valentino, and he “took the food one dramatic step further. “ Part of it, was that he had, “‘an Italian ‘intention’ but he works with an international inventory of products.” This working mandate included the best local and regional produce, which had improved greatly with the growth in California food consciousness, fish and meat that might be flown in from anywhere, and those essential foodstuffs from Italy that could not be replicated. Experience and an expanding number of domestic producers eventually helped Selvaggio determine what was necessary to be imported from Italy.
Valentino’s ethos was then something new for America’s Italian restaurants. It was very refined and complicated, as “far from home cooking as any French chef’s,” according to Pulitzer Prize-winning reviewer Jonathon Gold some years later. As the cooking evolved, it could be described as creative modern Italian food; authentically Italian in manner and thinking, though the dishes might not be found anywhere in Italy. The next year, the interior was “dressed up” in expensive fashion to more fully match the food. When the kitchen’s brilliant ideas and skillful execution were combined with the best ingredients, a fabulous wine list, an attractive dining room, and Selvaggio, “the Platonic ideal of a host,” organizing a meal, the results were fantastic.
What it was doing along with another grand Italian outpost in Los Angeles, Rex il Ristorante by Mauro Vicente, was not being done elsewhere in the country. “The American Italian revolution really started in Los Angeles in the 1980s,” wrote New York chef Jonathon Waxman, who was in southern California at the time, and who now runs his own well-regarded Italian restaurant. In the first part of that decade, “Rex and Valentino were the two most important restaurant operations in America,” remembered famed New York restaurateur Tony May. It took a few years before May brought New York onto the same level with Palio and then San Domenico in the late 1980s.
By the mid-1990s Valentino was peaking after years of increasing success and innovation. In 1995 it shared Wine Spectator’s top spot as the best restaurant in the country overall. In 1997, a Wine Spectator cover story about the country’s best Italian restaurants, “Valentino passes the rest of the field of Italian restaurants in the United States like a Ferrari in the fast lane of the autostrada.” This echoed earlier pronouncements from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. That same year Gambero Rosso, a leading Italian restaurant publication, named Valentino as the finest Italian restaurant in the world. At the end of the decade, Italian food writer Luigi Veronelli gave Valentino its highest rating.
Today, Valentino continues along admirably carrying three stars (out of four) from the Los Angeles Times, a very respectable 26 food score from the Zagat Survey, though these don’t tell the whole story. There are also outposts in Las Vegas and here. The location in Las Vegas with James Beard Award-winning chef Luciano Pelligrino is arguably the best Italian restaurant in Sin City. At the Houston branch, I have had the best Italian food I have ever had at a Houston restaurant at Valentino, certainly the best half-dozen meals and nine out of the best ten, at least. When on, it compares to the food at the top restaurants in Italy; I have been fortunate to travel to Italy several times in the past year-and-a-half on gastronomic trips, experiencing a few Michelin stars along the way. Chef Cunnighame West is among the best chefs in Houston, and easily the most underrated.
If you get to attend a wine dinner with Selvaggio, it is a true treat. He is compendium of Italian food and wine knowledge, which he dispenses freely. He seems to know every winemaker of note in California, Italy and France, and every important restaurateur in Italy, Los Angeles, and seemingly New York, plus more than a few celebrities courtesy of his Los Angeles base. He is also a very gracious host.
To note, some of this was adapted from my booklet, From the Antipasto to the Zabaglione – The Story of Italian Restaurants in America. It’s a good read, by the way.