An Interview With Piero Selvaggio

People make their way to Pink’s Hot Dogs on the reopening day of the iconic LA restaurant on March … [+] 1, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. – The hot dog stand, which has been in existence since opening in 1939, has been closed for the past two months amid […]

Back in the 1970s Los Angeles and San Francisco led a revolution in American cuisine at restaurants Like Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Spago in L.A. New access to ingredients, an import of great chefs and restaurateurs and an increasingly sophisticated dining public that fed as much on the food and wine as the glamor made the state a beacon of great restaurants and innovative style. There at the start was Piero Selvaggio, a Sicilian immigrant, who transformed Italian restaurants from the mundane to the sublime at his Valentino in Santa Monica, whose influence was worldwide on the image of Italian cuisine and wine.

 

Then, after decades of culinary fads and fancies and the onslaught of Covid, Valentino closed its doors, and now Selvaggio works at the fine Drago restaurant. I interviewed him about all the changes he’s seen since Covid hit the state.

How has the pandemic affected dining out in Southern California?

The pandemic has had a big impact in the world ‘s business and on people’s habits  So, California like New York, has been more affected than other states and big cities, mostly, because of the restrictions of the lawmakers and their leadership. Business overall is good at dinner. People are Covid fatigued and want to go out, repeat the old habits, entertain friends, celebrate outside of home confinement. So, the good restaurants, based on locations, are doing good business, and some more than before, due to more limited choices for the consumer.  The ones who are suffering are restaurants in business districts, where buildings are almost empty,  and lunch business has disappeared.  

Have there been many closures?

Yes, many places closed for good, many are heavily indebted and have downscaled, leaning more on to-go and deliveries.

What innovations have restaurateurs been making to keep going?

For many the P P Loans and the various State Protections weren’t enough to help stay afloat and busy, so Zoom, as in other businesses, became their forum: Regional dinners, buy the ingredients and we’ll guide you cooking them, virtual wine tasting with food matching, themes as for regional or eclectic cooking. And then chefs cooking for groups at private homes, discounts, Social communications.  The changes are based on age groups: The older either stay home and have deliveries, or must dine outside , in Patio or sidewalks, for fear,   Most instead, can’t wait to take off masks and dive into old dining habits. once seated, it is forgotten, masks and all. 

Are people coming back to fine dining?

Dining has never been more casual than now. Yes, to jewelry, expensive watches and shoes, but flip flops are now accepted, dogs are sometimes part of the group, and it is hard to judge people taste and wealth from their dress code. Besides, the music and film industry ,just as do the rich millennials, have never taken dressing up seriously.  Today dining doesn’t include the word “fine.”  Proliferation of Mexican and ethnic restaurants, little support of the press, confusion of what to expect, have all been factors in driving a lot of drinking, mezcal, tequila, shots, more hard liquor than wine with food, all reasons the accept this new form of eating in restaurants. 

 Have prices risen?

Prices are generically accepted. Cost of living, labor, fixed cost are so high overall, and it is a given, that a Prime steak or meat is now above $60, and for the few snobs it can go to a  thousand as at Salt Bae, where you are made aware that it is another period of temporary fads for the ultra-rich who seem to love gold in their food. 

How is Italian food doing in the U.S.?

Italian food at the top is extremely popular, but mostly there are no high- end Italian restaurants any more.  Today, every restaurant in America, has products like burrata, buffalo mozzarella, truffles, homemade pasta, designer  pizza and Brunellos on the wine list. It was our contribution—Mauro Vincenti, Tony May, Lidia Bastianich, Marcella Hazan—who brought Italian food to where it is in America today  We paved the road for the success of Eataly today and for all of the fine products that you find in good Markets. 

How are things going in Italy itself?

The emerging chefs also in Italy are adopting, influenced by techniques of other cuisines, a lot of inspiration from the Japanese discipline of process and presentation. Otherwise, there is a revisiting of old Italian and regional dishes reinterpreted or adapted to today’s diets and fantasy, like the cooking of Massimo Bottura,  ( Bottura, Max Alajmo and Pino Cuttaia, as well as steady traditionals like Nadia Santini at Dal Pescatore,. Artisans are still relevant and now more appreciated along with the collaboration of purveyors, farmers and chefs.  

Has there been a loss of sophistication among diners?

The down sliding level of sophistication in America is a fact of the times. Technology has had a great impact and the last year has hit reality: People have adjusted to eating on sidewalks, re-warmed food delivered after one hour, popularization of practical food and finger food. Fine dining restaurants and business entertainment and special occasions are not as popular at the top. Today  the word “restaurant”  could mean anything.  

What do see happening in the future?

The Future will mean adaptations: to prices for quality, less expectation of service (one of the biggest problem of today!) and experiences with various food.   I don’t think that Italian food will go farther than it has because there is now a lack of talents, lack of labor force, too many imitations of inferior products (oil, balsamic vinegar, tomatoes, cheeses, salumi) , and these are all consumer  issues for people that have discovered Italy and its treasures among those who know the difference. So today restaurants will be more continental than before, incorporating the traveling inspirations, staging and culinary learnings and interpretations of the cooking gurus.  Besides, I see a pure talent like my former chef Luciano Pellegrini opening a pizzeria in Las Vegas and accepting the commercial aspect and the name: Heavenly Pies. But we represent a rich cultural depth of what Italian food is, and as long as the products are genuine and well explained and tasted, there will be other young talents in the kitchen and in the press.

Traci J. Lewis

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