By Piero Selvaggio and Karen Stabiner
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.
a true rags-to-riches start as a busboy at the Beverly
Hills Hotel before opening Valentino when he was 25
in 1972, Selvaggioalways the front-of-the-house
manquickly 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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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, bottargaa
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.
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).
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."
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.
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.
with a wooden spoon; a metal one can break pasta.
long pasta all at once. Don't break it. Let it softly
blend into the water.
use a lid; pasta needs to breathe.
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.
you drain pasta, make sure you don't shake it. It
should stay wet.
with Porcini in a Sweet Pepper Sauce