Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
Elizabeth Daniels 8/13
Piero Selvaggio is a local legend in the industry, a life long restaurateur who first started working in restaurants at the age of 17. Since then, he's opened multiple concepts, many of which were the first of their kind, but he'll always be known for Valentino, the revolutionary trattoria that has since become a fine dining establishment known throughout the world. Eater sits down with Selvaggio, asking how he got into the business, what's changed over the forty years that he has operated, and what he plans to do to change the game again.
How did you get your start in the restaurant industry? I was the typical student, trying to get into college. I came to America at the age of 17 from Sicily and didn't have very good English. I originally moved to Brooklyn and started working in restaurants. I had heard that I had an uncle who was a "big business man" that "owned a restaurant" in California, so I decided to come out here. It turns out my Uncle John was a waiter, but he was working at a famous place that served a lot of Hollywood movie stars. I didn't speak very good English at the time, but my uncle asked me to come to a catering gig with that restaurant.
What restaurant did work for? Chasen's. Back then it was the restaurant. It was a legend. It was the sort of place where you had to "wet" the maitre d's hand to get the right table. A who's who of stars went there, like Gregory Peck and Tony Curtis. Chasen's was also the ultimate catering machine of the city. So my uncle told me to put on a bowtie and simple hold trays. I was so nervous as we went up to this incredible house in Bel Air. The house belonged to Sonia Henie, a famous figure skater and movie star that was married to a shipping magnate. There was 200 guests, a who's who of Hollywood. The house was a couple of acres and it was like a candy store for me. Liz Taylor, Sammy Davis, Richard Burton, Tony Curtis. All I could say was "minchia!" which basically means shit in Italian. I was going crazy, looking and staring at everyone, and my uncle told me to move. It was my first experience was that level of hospitality.
So you started working at Chasen's? I started working there to support myself while I went to college. After Chasen's I worked at Scandia's (a legendary Sunset Strip restaurant), then at Villa Nova. I also worked at Marquis, which was an Italian "continental" restaurant. Back then, most Italian restaurants were pizza joints or red-checked table places. Italian concepts at this level didn't exist. At this period I was making good money and working hard to learn English. There were two things I enjoyed while working: one was that I knew I was going to meet glamorous people; and two was that I was going to make money. I made a lot of money from tips, as back then there were not credit cards. After college, I went to Las Vegas for a while, but then returned to do something concrete for my future.
How did Valentino get its start? A friend of mine, Johnny Poletti, told me, let's open a restaurant. I thought he was joking. But we found a cheap bar called Zumritter's in Santa Monica, which was named after brand of German beer. Because we were cheap, we still have the legal filing of this corporation under "Zumritter Corp d.b.a. (doing business as) Valentino." In 1972, I had saved up about $5,000 and opened as fast as we could. I paid $350 in rent, plus first and last month as a security deposit. Then the adventure started. Johnny was this cook that improvised while I would be out front talking to people. The concept was a traditional Italian trattoria. I'd go out and ask tables, what do you feel like eating? We had veal, chicken, pasta, a fresh fish dish, we wanted it to be casual but also a good quality environment. Johnny and I both had fine dining experience so we wanted this place to be different. I believe we had the first true trattoria in L.A. At the time, the good places around town were Chasen's, Scandia's, Perino, La Rue, and L'Hermitage, which was the finest French restaurant in the city. Most Italian restaurants at the time were pizzerias, associated with garlic, chianti bottles, and heavy sauces. The food of the North was finer, but it was under the category of Continental cuisine.
Why the name Valentino? Johnny and I went through a lot of names, but our reasoning was Rudolph Valentino, the famous silent film actor. It was connected with Hollywood. The name was catchy and easy to remember. It was one name and it was easier to pronounce. We never trademarked the name and when we went to Las Vegas years ago, we had a big battle with a Nebraska pizza company.
What was it like in the early days? At that time, it felt like L.A. was waking up to good food. The only food critic was Lois Dwan, who wrote for the Los Angeles Times. She had a column called Roundabout that came out every Sunday. Lois was a gentle person that captured the food but was not a harsh critic. She was a big supporter of a restaurant scene. When we opened on December 4, 1972, we had a few friends that came out of courtesy, but the things started going down. Johnny wasn't into the media and we couldn't afford public relations. I was a big reader of anything that happened in the food world. I thought, if Lois Dwan could ever come, maybe she would like us, but we didn't know what she looked like. At the time, we were serving maybe 8-10 people a night. I was working the front at that time and I had all of my warmth and excitement, inviting people to tables and sit. We had a handwritten menu, a very personal approach, and offered whatever we had. We might have also been the only restaurant with an espresso machine. The prices on the menu were as such, appetizers were $2.50, soup was 95 cents, and pasta was $4.50. At Chasen's, a meal would cost about $30. Remember minimum wage was $1.25-1.50 an hour.
What happened after the review came out? Lois Dwan had come in for a few meals. She was an espresso fanatic. By the 18th of December, we were struggling. We didn't know where people would come from as we had no money for marketing or publicity. On Christmas Day of that year, the review was published. She wrote, "Today's Christmas, I would like to give you three special places...Valentino is a jewel, like a wife full of joy" (The other two have since closed). The phone started ringing. That day was a disaster. We had a huge crowd and served 80 terrible dinners. But we got organized right away and learned from our mistakes. We got press everywhere, from California Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, we got on the map. I thought we were going to have to close by January or February, but instead we were sizzling.
What would you have done instead of owning restaurants? My dream was to become a journalist, but because of the language barrier, I could never be one. Since then, I have written food articles in the LA Times and Herald-Examiner about sun-dried tomatoes, affiorato, which is the flower of olive oil.
[Early dining room at Valentino]
What was the first five years like? We grew a lot physically. We added seats, up to 65-70 and we were still doing 160 covers a night. We added a bar because we wanted to get more action, and have more room for people to feel comfortable. Then Johnny wanted to open another restaurant called Peppone's on Barrington. It was kind of a speakeasy, like a Rao's of that neighborhood. I told Johnny, it's just the two of us, how can you leave? I bought him out for $200,000, which was tremendous at the time. Now I had a big elephant but I didn't have a cook. People started telling me that the food was bad.
What changed? I met a director of a famous Italian wine magazine who offered to show me around Italy. I went to Milan and went to experience a real Italian restaurant. These were incredible chefs. I had carpaccio with white truffles. Fresh porcini mushrooms. I was so used to Italian-American food. This was Italian food. I saw how behind I was. From there I found a chef who had worked on cruise ships. Pino Pasqualato became our chef for 6-7 years and he helped stabilize the restaurant. In 1981, we were awarded the Wine Spectator 10 Best Award. And for the last 32 years we've had the Grand Award from them.
[The bar at Valentino in the 1970s]
You opened some other restaurants in the ensuing years. What were they? I went to New York and opened Primi, which only served appetizers. Essentially everything but the main course. It was considered the best concept by Time Magazine and Mimi Sheraton of the New York Times. That restaurant was a pleasure, it was open air, a modern trattoria. We started with the simplest dish, affiorato e sorpressata. Flower of oil with three slices of salami, red pepper, and bruschetta. Everything was like a main course but cut in half. Tons of pasta, as you know, the pasta course is called primi in Italian. We opened another Primi on Pico (where Steingarten is now).
What are you most proud of? Being able to last longer than any fine dining restaurant in the city. 40 years now, and it'll be 41 in December.
You almost sold the property a few months ago, what was your thinking? My thinking was, maybe Valentino was too big, like an old elephant. I could step into a smaller space. The real estate market is very profitable right now, so I said, let's test the market. I wanted to sell the land, but the news was splashed in a different way. People thought we were closing. I just wanted to move, not close. Then I thought, where can I find a space like this, that will house the wine cellar, it would've been impossible to move everything. To open a restaurant with half the space would cost the same rent. These days $2-3 million dollars is what you need to open a new place. In my life I'd had five restaurants, two in Vegas, one in Houston.
And what are you trying to do now? Valentino has been good to everybody. We've had a lot of good times, like a restaurant should be. Now I'm thinking, what can we do within our power to do something different, maybe put a twist. This week, we've started emphasizing two regions that are nearest and dearest to us: Sicily and Sardinia. Chef Nico Chessa and I would love to give more notoriety to those two places. He's going to be focused on traditional Sardinian food, things like suckling pig, bottarga, rustic seafood etc. The menu will still have classic Valentino dishes, the more popular dishes. This is a new challenge. We didn't renew our lease in Vegas. We finished our contract in Houston. This restaurant in Santa Monica is my first love, and I want one more chance to continue feeding my first love. I'm determined. The reputation might be a little shaky, I'm not sure what the buzz is on the street, but I'm going to tighten my belt and do what brings me so much joy. When people come here after 7-8 years and say this is where we celebrated our engagement or had our first date. That legacy and emotion. It's the reason why restaurant such as this are such an important part of people's lives.
How do you still have the energy at your age? When I get up, the adrenaline starts. It's like having a different show every night. This is theater. I look foward to fall and winter, which are two very good seasons for us. People come back from summer, they have more of an entertaining approach. It stimulates the creativity when you know how to blend food and wine. You can't strike one thousand every time, but we know that even on the rainiest days, we do a decent job. It's the reason why we've lasted forty years. It's the consistency of what you do.
What's your thoughts on hospitality? We all give service. But that's different than hospitality. Hospitality is the reason why a business strives or doesn't. Look at what hotels do, fine restaurants, and such. There has to be that attention to detail.
What do you think your legacy will be? My pioneering, introducing L.A. to great Italian cuisine. I'm very highly regarded in Italy, as a liason of Italian food. There wasn't really fine Italian food on the West Coast. Now Italian cuisine is at University level, it's very good, classic, and well presented.
What do you think Valentino will be years from now? My children don't care about the restaurant business, so it will have to end with me. In a way, things have changed. Restaurants like this, I don't know if they'll last another ten years. The approach to dining out by the new generation is different. This is still a special occasion restaurant, so there's a larger satisfaction.
Looking ahead, if you could have one last meal on earth, what would it be? I would have some small octopus in black sauce with a glass of good Champagne. After that prosciutto with a glass of lambrusco. After that, truffles with egg, a big raviolo with egg and spinach and then with truffles shaved like crazy on top, which I"ll drink with a big Pietmontese wine. Next, my mother's fasomagro, which is a roulade with beef stuffed with hard eggs, cheese, salami, rolled and cooked slowly. I'd drink that with my friend cabernet from Araujo. Then soft cheese with a good port, preferably Dow's 1977, which is the ultimate port vintage. And finally, nothing but sicilian cannoli and cassata with pacito, from one of the sweetest grapes in the world. I'd enjoy that with my wife Anna, the love of my life, and my daughter Sasha. My last meal is a blend of emotions from childhood to becoming a big restaurateur. From comfort food to finer ingredients.
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