On one of its last nights of service, guests of Valentino streamed into the restaurant from Pico Boulevard.
“I hear you’re closing,” said a smartly-dressed woman.
“Yes,” answered the host.
“Why?” she asked, with pain in her voice.
The host — the consummate host — sighed and responded, “Do you have a few hours?”
This conversation in different forms continued throughout the night as Piero Selvaggio, the founder, face, heart, and life-force behind the restaurant Valentino, greeted diners.
Selvaggio comforted his grieving regulars. They were there for one last bottle of excellent wine, a final bite of pillowy handkerchief pasta coated in pesto, or an ultimate forkful of beautiful branzino. Valentino closed on New Year’s Eve, more than 46 years after it opened in a part of Santa Monica one would not consider a great location. Valentino could safely be called the best restaurant that’s ever existed across the street from a Travelodge Motel.
The Italian food scene in Los Angeles back in the 1970s wasn’t very good either. Restaurants were mostly of the red sauce variety, serving overcooked pasta on heaping plates. The words al dente meant nothing to most. Selvaggio recalled that Valentino, named after the silent film star Rudolph Valentino, was about the same when it first opened. “Sure, we served mozzarella, but it was just rubbery cheese then. Our food was not good. I didn’t know if we were going to make it to Christmas Day.”
That was December 18, 1972. and Valentino had only been open for two weeks. Then on December 24, 1972, the Sunday before Christmas, then LA Times food critic Lois Dwan wrote in her Roundabout column, “Valentino is a jewel, like a wife full of joy.”
Selvaggio, then 26, remembered that he started crying when he read that review. On Monday, Christmas Day, the phone started ringing at 8:30 in the morning. People wanted reservations. “And it didn’t stop,” Selvaggio said with a smile.
The food gradually improved and the wine list got better as Selvaggio got to know winemakers from California and Italy. But the food still wasn’t good enough. Even after a few good years of business, Selvaggio realized that he didn’t really know Italian cuisine well at all. So in 1977, he went to Milan.
“Truffles! I had never heard of truffles,” he recalled of his first meal in Milan. Selvaggio grew up in a small town in Sicily, where he is considered to be a hero. He migrated with his family to Brooklyn, New York, in 1964 and then moved to California when he was 17 to live with an uncle who waited tables at the historic Chasen’s restaurant. Selvaggio worked there as a busboy. Fast forward to 1977, and Selvaggio was ready to return to Los Angeles from Milan, bringing an Italian chef in to help burnish the menu.
“Valentino was the ultimate destination,” Selvaggio said. “We had service, bubbles, and a great wine list.” By 1994, Selvaggio had won a James Beard award for Outstanding Wine Service. By the mid-90s, Valentino had matured into what some considered one of the best — and often the best — restaurant in LA, and in the U.S., so said Wine Spectator in 1995 and Gourmet magazine in 1997, among others. Valentino won Wine Spectator magazine’s top honor for 32 years in a row. Italy Magazine called Selvaggio “the man who changed Italian cuisine in the U.S.”
On a late December evening, each guest begins with a small plate of two perfectly grilled shrimp and thin, crispy ribbons of fried parmesan cheese. A family of five sits in the dining room in front of a red wall on red velour chairs. A chandelier resembling an upside-down spider illuminates the table. Two of the three teens are getting the linguine con pesto di mandorle, linguini tossed with an almond-basil pesto topped with crispy pancetta. The son gets the special, garganelli al ragu, short tubes of ridged pasta handmade with finely-milled Italian flour, topped with Valentino’s classic Bolognese sauce.
Selvaggio serves a party of two at a high top table in the bar to small plates of crudo di pesce, a sort of Italian sashimi of salmon, tuna, and yellowtail dressed with a citrus colatura, an anchovy-based fish sauce. Selvaggio then instructs the server to bring the pasta courses. One is the aforementioned handkerchief pasta and the other is fusilloro verrigni all norma, which Selvaggio explained is a classic Sicilian dish that evokes the Mt. Vesuvio volcano. Golden fusilli pasta is combined with tomato and eggplant — the lava — and topped with aged ricotta that serves as the eruption.
A server places down a nicely-cooked branzino filet, which comes topped with tomato and capers in front of a woman in one of the two main dining rooms. Her companion receives a special dish of coniglio, rabbit meat rolled and pressed — dark meat on the inside, ringed by white meat — sitting on potato puree and a ring of dark demi-glace. Selvaggio knowingly offered them a glass of Nero di Avola, a Sicilian wine.
A man, in his forties, walks in past the orchids on the front table. The pale tan walls are adorned with frame after frame of awards. “I live in San Francisco. I came here 15 years ago,” the man told Selvaggio. “And I had to come back one more time.” Selvaggio smiles and directs the man to a dining room where a dozen others were having a party. They receive a curated menu with some of the restaurant’s favorite dishes.
The dinner crowd is mixed. There are years-long regulars, most of them in their 50s or older. A large Asian family is there for a special occasion. There are two families with children in tow, and the kids seem to be wondering what they’re in for. Mostly, everyone is there because Valentino won’t be for much longer.
“For many, Valentino was the place they first tasted a great Chianti classico, or had the epiphany of crudo lightly dressed with some fantastic olive oil Piero had hunted down,” said former longtime LA Magazine restaurant critic Patric Kuh, now a manager at The Arthur J restaurant in Manhattan Beach. “I myself have never tasted bottarga of the quality Piero could source.”
“Nobody was bringing over the kind of ingredients Piero was bringing over,” said Steve Samson, who worked with Selvaggio for six years. Today, Samson is the chef and owner of Rossoblu in Downtown LA’s Fashion District. “When he was starting Valentino, I was growing up in Los Angeles with an Italian mother who was struggling to find the ingredients to cook what she wanted to cook. That all changed thanks to Piero. He championed the people who did a whole renaissance of Italian food in Los Angeles, if not the whole country.”
Samson, who also opened Sotto in South Beverly Hills, is among the countless alumni and proteges of Valentino and Selvaggio who have gone on to define the new Italian cuisine of Los Angeles and beyond. Angelo Auriana previously headed the kitchen at Valentino and now has three restaurants in LA — Factory Kitchen, Officine Brera, and Sixth + Mill. Donato Poto, co-owner of Providence, spent more than a decade managing Valentino and Primi, a Selvaggio restaurant in New York City serving only appetizers. In the 1990s, Selvaggio gave a young cook from Philadelphia named Marc Vetri some direction. Today, that young cook who was working with Wolfgang Puck in LA is a James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur in his hometown.
“I got to know Piero a little as he was friends with Wolfgang and would come in,” Vetri said. “I was getting tired of LA and one night I asked Piero if he knew someone in Italy I could go work for.”
Vetri is one among many young chefs who went to work in restaurants in northern Italy with a note of introduction from Selvaggio. Vetri began months of learning Italian cooking, moving southward to different restaurants, all owned by friends of Selvaggio.
“I would make my way there, hand the note [to the owner], and start working that night. If it wasn’t for Piero, who knows what I would be doing.”
Selvaggio said that not having a celebrity chef was one of the reasons Valentino began to decline in sales.
“Valentino is no longer what’s new, what’s hot, what’s happening,” Selvaggio continued, adding, “I’m fighting the elements of novelty.”
He said he also took his eye off the ball by opening (and later closing) numerous restaurants in other cities like Las Vegas, New York City, and Houston. In 2004, Valentino’s Las Vegas chef was named the best in the Southwest by the James Beard Foundation. Over the years, Selvaggio’s restaurants received 14 James Beard nominations, winning three times.
“I became an impresario,” Selvaggio said. “I was on the plane more than I was in the restaurant.”
Selvaggio admitted it’s painful to close Valentino, but after a weak summer he decided it was time to end the romance with his “mistress.” He added that he has absolutely no regrets. For the last three years, Selvaggio has been living in Orange County with his family. His wife, a physician, has a practice there, so he’s been driving more than 90 minutes each way.
Selvaggio said his commute will soon be very short, to a new restaurant he’ll be opening with Ron Salisbury, the owner of El Cholo restaurants in Southern California. The restaurant will be called “Louie’s By the Bay” in Newport, named for Louie Zamperini, the Olympian and World War II hero who wrote the book Unbroken, on which the film of the same name was based. Zamperini was once Salisbury’s babysitter.
“I hated the name,” Selvaggio said, “but then I loved the name after I heard the story.”
Louie’s will be an Italian steakhouse, Selvaggio said, but will also serve “fun pastas.” And wine. Valentino’s remaining collection of extraordinary wines will comprise 30 to 40 percent of Louie’s wine list. Customers could even buy the 1891 Biondi-Santi Brunello offered for $25,000, but it’s unlikely Selvaggio will sell it. It’s one of only three such bottles in the world.
Late into one of the last nights of Valentino, a man sat at the bar. He was dressed in a suit. In notoriously casual LA, he even wore a tie.
“So, what’s everyone gonna do when this place closes down?” the man asked Selvaggio.
By mid-January, any longtime regulars can find Selvaggio at his new restaurant Louie’s By the Bay.
Edited by Matthew Kang
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