Merrill Shindler / October 1998
Food Arts presents the October 1998 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Piero Selvaggio, the suave Sicilian who helped transform the notion of what an Italian restaurant in the United States can—and should—be. By doggedly pursuing the most impeccable and authentic ingredients and wines from Italy and insisting that their preparation and presentation not veer from the true Italian way, Selvaggio turned his modest 1972 start-up in Santa Monica, California, called Valentino, into the first and last word of alta cucina.
“Los Angeles was a culinary wasteland,” Selvaggio says of the city a quarter century ago, when he opened up shop. “Even risotto was a foreign word. We trained the city’s palate, and foods like balsamic vinegar, polenta, and porcini don’t need translation anymore. Now there are so many Italian ingredients we take for granted, and there’s hardly an American restaurant menu that doesn’t have at least 10 ingredients on it.”
Like the eternally optimistic lads in a Horatio Alger novel, Selvaggio, 52, has succeeded through a combination of luck, pluck, and an unshakable belief in the healing power of authentic cucina Italiana. Born and raised in Modica, a small town on the southeastern tip of Sicily, he emigrated to Brooklyn at age 18, managing to keep body and soul together by washing dishes in the student cafeteria at New York University while studying journalism and working on his English. Accepting an offer from an uncle who worked as captain at Chasen’s, Selvaggio moved to Los Angeles, where he lived a double life for the next five years—busboy by night, Romance language student at San Fernando Sate College by day. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree and an impressive fluency in not just English but French, Portuguese, and Spanish as well.
By that time, he had risen from busboy to restaurant manager at a Westside Italian eatery called Marquis. From there, he went to work as a maître d’ in Las Vegas, where he endured unhappily for eight months. He returned to L.A. to teach Spanish (another job he didn’t like) but at the urging of his friends, decided to open his own restaurant.
Selvaggio laid out $4,500 to open Valentino (named after the silent film heartthrob) in a former beer bar on Santa Monica’s decidedly proletarian Pico Boulevard. Fearing “Italian” would be construed as spaghetti and meatballs—“Italian food did not yet have a college degree,” he says—Selvaggio labeled the cooking “continental cuisine.” His menu shone with butterfly trout GiGi ($4.95), entrecôte of beef espagnole ($6.25), poulet Omar Sharif ($4.95), mousse au Sherry ($1.25), and spumoni and a cookie (85 cents).
In a town where Perino’s, Chasen’s, and Scandia were the sine qua non of dining, it was slow going at first for Selvaggio. But as one critic observed, he was blessed with such a lack of business experience that he existed in a fog of enthusiastic innocence. He was so happy to have any customers at all that he didn’t know he was supposed to have more. And in time, more came.
The menu grew increasingly more Italian, with Selvaggio importing heretofore unseen white truffles and buffalo-milk mozzarella and serving unknown dishes such as frico and (yes!) tiramisù. Within a decade, Valentino was being spoken of in reverent terms. Today, with its carefully crafted “Extravaganza Menu,” executed by chef Angelo Auriana, and it extensive cellar—an estimated 1,500 labels and 135,000 bottles—Valentino is sometimes acknowledged to be not just the best Italian restaurant in town, or in America, but, by homeland standards, “the best in the world.” A headline in the Italian restaurant/wine magazine and guide Gambero Rosso proclaimed “Valentino: II Migliore Italiano del Mondo” (Valentino: World’s Best Italian), and one in Palermo’s Giornale di Sicilia pronounced “Selvaggio, Miglior Ristoratore Italiano nel Mondo” (Selvaggio, Best Italian Restaurateur in the World).
In 1986, Selvaggio opened Primi in West Los Angeles to serve starters and pasta, and in 1992, he raised the curtain on Posto in Sherman Oaks, serving hearty “le madri” (mom-style) dishes of his childhood. He’ll venture back to Vegas next year to open a Valentino in the new Venetian hotel. But he has weathered his share of hardships, too, most notable in 1993, when fire leveled his home in Malibu, and in 1994, when an earthquake destroyed so many bottles at Valentino that a river of wine literally gushed out of the restaurant. Many wineries that he’s championed over the years replaced his lost inventory gratis as a gesture of thanks.
Where’s Selvaggio leading next? “The excitement for me is that there’s still so much to introduce to people,” he says. “I look forward, for instance, to the day when we can serve whole fish without deboning it. That’s never been something that customers want. And I think family-style dining will become a restaurant staple, not just at chain restaurants but at upscale Italian restaurants as well. Everybody loves the family meal. I call it the embrace of the table—lots of food creates a sense of sharing. Good laughter, good friendship, good conversation—they all become entangled with the sensuousness of the food. For me, that’s a wonderful dining experience.”