The Leonardo da Vinci Society of the Bay Area is celebrating its 70th Anniversary. Founded by Italiophiles who were captivated by the genius of...
Italian cuisine is recognized and appreciated all across the globe. From extremely simple to more refined dishes, what makes the real difference are the genuine ingredients of our tradition.
Yet there was a time in the - not so distant - past when they couldn’t be found abroad, due to their cost and perishability. Among them were white truffles, fresh mozzarella, burrata cheese, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and real prosciutto. Nowadays, we can’t even imagine doing without them!
One of the pioneers who introduced such delicious flovors in the Los Angeles food scene is Piero Selvaggio, a native of Modica, in Sicily region, founder and owner of the famed Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica.
Opened over 40 years ago, the place has become a milestone of Italian fine dining and hospitality in L.A. thanks to a few key factors. First of all, the location: there are no shops or offices in Pico Blvd, so the restaurant is a chosen destination for habitués or customers celebrating a special occasion.
Second, the food quality and authenticity: “In the beginning, it wasn’t so good”, Piero Selvaggio recalls. “It was too spicy and rich, influenced by the American taste and the memories of first generation immigrants. So I went back to Italy and discovered that Italian cuisine is actually very elegant, featuring truffles, carpaccio, porcini mushrooms, and other delicacies.”
In Italy, he also learned a lot about wine varietals and how to match them with different courses. The Sicilian restaurateur brought this knowledge back to the U.S. with him, and asked his chef to prepare some new dishes, despite the difficulties relating to importing the products and persuading the customers to try them. “Somebody must take the first step. It’s important to understand what the clients want but also to teach them a few culinary details, even if takes time. Today it’s different, people have access to more information by traveling the world and surfing the Internet, while 40 years ago they couldn’t know how the real Italian cuisine was supposed to taste.”
The third reason for Valentino’s success is the attitude and charm of his creator: Piero Selvaggio’s vision and determination enabled him to remain on the top for decades, taking his chances and reinventing the menu to move with the times, but always consistent with his original identity.
“When I came to the U.S. at the age of 17, I had never thought of starting a restaurant. My uncle was a restaurateur, and I used to help him while in school. After graduating from college, a friend of mine talked me into this adventure, he had just a little more experience than me at that time, but I’ve always been good at connecting with people and so I was in charge of the public relations. Later on, when my friend and I went separate ways, I had to learn how to manage the kitchen as well. Those are two sides of the same coin, and I like them both. Having control over all the restaurant’s activities is essential in order to establish a reputation; at the same time, Valentino is a big Italian family, many of my collaborators have been working here for over 20 years. The chef Nino Chessa is from Sardinia and has been with me for 5 years now.” Together they contribute to promote the Italian culture and culinary tradition abroad, keeping the ties with Italy and the local Italian American community.
Throughout the years, Piero Selvaggio has opened a few more restaurants in different areas of Los Angeles as well as in luxury hotels in Las Vegas, such as the Venetian and the Mandalay Bay. Yet Valentino remains the main location, with a wide and high-class selection, in terms of both wine list and menu, that earned it several awards and the special mention as “Best Italian Restaurant in the World” by the renowned Gambero Rosso dining guide.
“Being revered doesn’t necessary mean being full of customers though, especially in a city like L.A. where every day a new trend is born and a new restaurant is opened. This is why I decided to invest in professionalism, reliability, and elegance, which never go out of fashion. We offer a complete and high-standard service to a certain target, such as celebrities, institutions, charities, and clients who know very well what they’re looking for. And they know that Valentino can meet all of their needs.”