For LA's Italian-born chefs, cuisine is a distinctly local love affair.
RivaBella’s indoor outdoor space evokes a rustic Italian farmhouse.
You can find hundreds of Italian restaurants around LA, but in fact, there’s no such thing as “Italian” food. Rather, this boot-shaped Mediterranean country is made up of at least 20 major regions, each with its own epicurean flair.
To wit: In the north, Piedmont and Lombardy produce rich, creamy dishes and hearty stews. Italy’s breadbasket, Emilia-Romagna, is renowned for its meaty sauces, wholesome lasagna, and Modena’s syrupy-yet-savory balsamic vinegar. You can taste the ocean in the fragrant seafood risottos of Veneto, while farther south, you will find the delicate pastas and rustic vegetable dishes of Tuscany and the earthier fritti misti of Rome. And toward the bottom of the boot are Campania and its prized pizzas; the wheat pastas, olive oil-based dishes and nose-to-tail animal alchemy of Puglia; and the exotically rich fare of Sicily.
While a mishmash of regional influences is the norm in American Italian restaurants, LA’s Italian chefs are keeping their hometown heritages alive with deliciously distintivo dishes. Here, a guide to several standout cuisines and where to find them in LA—extreme north and deep south. Buon appetito!
Hailing from Veneto, chef Robert “Bobo” Ivan of Piccolo Ristorante (5 Dudley Ave., Venice, 310-314-3222) says he “plays with several influences of Veneto…. turbot and brill are my favorite dishes. In Venice, we used to do it quite simply—steamed or grilled. Though I serve it with a squid-ink guazzetto.”
Perhaps the most famous Venetian transplant is The Restaurant at Mr. C Beverly Hills (1224 Beverwil Dr., La, 310-277-2800), which is part of the vaunted Cipriani family of restaurants and hotels. Chef Guiseppe Manco says, “All of the Cipriani classics have strong Venetian influences.” Case in point: the calves liver alla Veneziana. “The calves liver recipe is one of the oldest in Venice,” he says.
Another pillar of LA’s Italian dining scene, Gino Angelini, was born on the Adriatic coast of one of Italy’s most famous food regions, Emilia Romagna. This particular province is known for perfecting many of the pasta dishes we all know and love, including lasagna, tortellini, and tagliatelle—not to mention sought-after foodstuffs like prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano. So when you order at Angelini Osteria (7313 Beverly Blvd., LA, 323-297-0070) it’s a good bet to order something like the famous lasagna verde with hearty beef and veal ragu—an homage to Angelini’s grandmother, Elvira.
Sicily native Piero Selvaggio first opened the doors of Valentino (3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, 310-829-4313) in 1972, and this white-tablecloth dining room has since become one of the staples of LA fine dining. “The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Spanish, and English all had an influence on [Sicily] and brought products there,” he says—think eggplant, capers, ricotta cheese, almonds, and pistachios. Selvaggio’s kitchen builds on that multicultural heritage, he says, by “updating the dishes using products like Japanese eggplant, which is less salty than Italian; Maui onions, which are sweeter; and a specially produced sheep’s-milk ricotta.”
Drago Centro in DTLA offers a contemporary design to match its innovative Southern Italian cuisine.
Also hailing from Sicily, Celestino Drago has been a fixture on the LA dining scene since he came here by way of Pisa in 1979. At his flagship Drago Centro Downtown (525 S. flower St., LA, 213-228-8998), he’s influenced by dozens of regions in Italy; however, he has a special place in his heart for rigatoni alla norma, “a timeless recipe,” he says, “that reminds me of the sauces Mama would make in the summertime, when tomatoes and eggplant were picked fresh from the vine.” He makes it his own by pureeing the flesh of an eggplant and making a crispy “nest” garnish from its skin. As for that stint in Pisa? “I learned to grill meats with seasoned salt, which we use to create a variety of dishes both on the menu and as seasonal specials,” he says.
Perhaps not as well known outside Italy, the southern seaside region of Puglia is, nonetheless, hugely influential on Italian menus. To try some regional specialties, one of the most authentic menus in town is at Pizzeria Il Fico (310 S. Robertson Blvd., LA, 310-271-3426). Here, chefs Giuseppe Gentile and Nicola Mastronardi (both natives of Bari) whip up specialties like octopus roasted to a tender, sweet texture and served with smashed potatoes, olives, cherry tomatoes, and capers.
At RivaBella, the porcini risotto is a rich dish emblematic of chef Luigi Fineo’s Southern Italian roots.
Luigi Fineo, the new chef at RivaBella (9201 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 310-278-2060), hails from the tiny town of Gioia del Colle in Puglia, where “the cuisine tends to be heavier and richer.” His little hamlet is renowned for its burrata cheesemakers; in fact, Fineo gets his from Gioia Cheese (1605 Potrero Ave., El Monte, 626-444-6015), helmed by a man from his village. In a nod to his roots, Fineo includes on the menu several dishes influenced by his native cuisine, including a cavatelli pasta dish, which was invented hundreds of years ago in Gioia “and was my favorite dish growing up,” according to the chef. The dish varies from season to season, says Fineo, and is “lighter in the summer… and heavier in winter, with braised meat.”