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The Valentino Cookbook

By Piero Selvaggio and Karen Stabiner (Villard)

The Valentino Cookbook

Many people in Los Angeles may not realize that Piero Selvaggio's mother is their favorite cook. Sure, they've returned countless times to Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica, Selvaggio's nationally acclaimed Italian eatery, and feasted on specialties. They may also be familiar with Selvaggio's legendary personal service and award-winning 140,000-bottle wine cellar, but the food and philosophy often stem right from the Brooklyn by-way-of-Sicily dinner table of Lina, Selvaggio's mother.

After a true rags-to-riches start as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel before opening Valentino when he was 25 in 1972, Selvaggio—always the front-of-the-house man—quickly figured out that what kept people coming back were not just fancy, upscale dishes, but interpretations of his mother's hearty, very down-to-earth favorites. Twenty-nine years later that same philosophy is the backbone of The Valentino Cookbook, his first cookbook.

"I knew that mix was the key," said Selvaggio when interviewed. "People want fancy sometimes, they want innovative sometimes, but they also want pure comfort cuisine sometimes. I was very firm that I didn't want this to be some kind of coffee-table chichi, glossy book, but, instead, one that would be the greasiest one in a person's kitchen because they use it so much."

Therefore, there are lots of interpretations of Lina's simple, yet extremely flavorful, pasta dishes and other favorites like her artichokes stuffed with breadcrumbs, anchovies, garlic and parsley.

And there are also plenty of the cutting-edge specialties Valentino is known for in Los Angeles, and also at an equally popular branch of the restaurant at The Venetian in Las Vegas: lobster tortino with champagne sauce, and crêpes with either duck and mustard in red wine cream sauce or porcini mushrooms in a sweet red pepper sauce.

When it comes to both comfort and luxury food, the quality of the ingredients is what Selvaggio lives by. "In good Italian cooking, it's the distinctiveness and quality of each ingredient that counts," said Selvaggio, who captured his ideas for the book with the help of food writer Karen Stabiner. "A platter with the best carpaccio, mozzarella and tomatoes is impeccable. You can serve your pasta, as we sometimes do, with just pecorino cheese, sweet onions and olive oil, but that should be the best pecorino, sweet onions, olive oil and pasta you can get your hands on."

Selvaggio knows all about that. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was the first to introduce diners to what have now become staples: buffalo mozzarella, truffles and boutique olive oils. Currently, his frequent trips to Italy have him featuring, with pasta or salads, bottarga—a caviar-like delicacy which is the dried roe of fish, like tuna or mullet, pressed, salted and dried in the sun. It maintains the distinct flavor of whichever fish is used.

Selvaggio's attention to detail when it comes to ingredients is almost as legendary as his personalized service. He uses, for instance, only Latini pasta (like bottarga, it is available in some upscale supermarkets and Italian markets). This is an "artisan" pasta that's "aged" for precisely the exact amount of time (3 to 4 days) to keep the wheat flavor pristine and is sold in numbered and signed boxes (e.g., box 18,251 out of a production of 20,000).

But Selvaggio stresses that anyone can bump up the quality of their Italian cooking without making special purchases. "To start with," he said, "make sure you are performing the small steps to cook your pasta to its fullest potential. It's amazing how many people never learned correctly at the outset."

Among the hardcover book's treasures: profound wine-pairing tips and information befitting his unparalleled reputation; equipment notes; and priceless personal stories. Here are Selvaggio's pasta tips.

  • "The biggest secret is salting," There should be 2 to 3 tablespoons salt for 2 gallons water for a pound of pasta (and "pasta needs lots of water in which to swim. This will all help it cook through and not be sticky.") Since you've salted at this stage, don't salt sauces. If you want to avoid salt, add lemon juice. A drop of olive oil also helps prevent sticking.
  • Stir with a wooden spoon; a metal one can break pasta.
  • Add long pasta all at once. Don't break it. Let it softly blend into the water.
  • Don't use a lid; pasta needs to breathe.
  • Pasta needs to be al dente. You want to feel the grain when you taste it. If cooked right, it's almost sweet; if gummy, it's overcooked.
  • Once you drain pasta, make sure you don't shake it. It should stay wet.

Lina's Stuffed Artichokes
Crêpes with Porcini in a Sweet Pepper Sauce

(Updated: 01/08/09 SB)

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