Piero Selvaggio, Celestino Drago, Nico Chessa, and Steve Samson
“I can’t begin to tell you what I’ve been through for this dinner,” Valentino generalissimo Piero Selvaggio said through a smile, sometime approaching midnight last night, as the 40th anniversary dinner at his Santa Monica restaurant drew to its dusk. Unruffled and ageless as ever, embracing and attending to each guest as if they were the only person in existence, the owner had 25 cooks crammed into Nico Chessa’s kitchen, including the special forces of Celestino Drago and Sotto’s Steve Samson, with Urth Cafe’s Davide Giova back on pastry duty.
This allied legion oversaw a procession of 40 bites to every table, 20 representing Chessa’s homeland of Sardinia, 20 for Selvaggio’s Sicily. The celebration included unique pasta shapes of forged by the hands of 86-year-old Elvira Cavalle, plus courses dedicated to the hero of the night, the late Mauro Vicente, and bites of calf brain fritters, uni-topped bomba di riso, thin slabs of sliced bottarga, and magical fruits and fish crafted out of marzipan by Palermo’s silent nuns of Mortorana.
Wolfgang Puck even popped-in for a doggie bag of desserts, including the same nougat by Caffe Sicilia, frutta Mortorana, and cannoli of which Selvaggio reflectively told Grub Street in a true “Rosebud” moment, “This is what I wanted most to have–what I grew up with.”
Sacramento’s ingredient encyclopedia Darrell Corti weaved lessons throughout the room, as 40 pours of wines curated by Do Bianchi’s passionate Jeremy Parzen shone the light on Sardinian and Sicilian beauties, including a few bio-dynamic radicals like Cornelissen’s Rosso Contadino 9, blended from natural grapes grown on Mt. Etna, eastern Sicily’s active volcano.
Diners recounted Selvaggio and Valentino’s rise from a humble 15-table red sauce Italian on Pico (“with bad wine and great food,” as one dedicated regular put it) to today’s scopic space and expansion to Las Vegas. Come take a look at the dishes and guest-chefs who made Valentino’s anniversary a standout night among the many to remember in the last 40 years.
Eggplant rolls with smoked provola, foccace, and triangular panelle. Corti explained that panelle, the staple made from chickpea flour, are the meaure of a good Sicilian home chef, due to their simplicity.
With sea urchin and ricotta, representing the Sicilian side of the menu.
Stuffed with cous cous, Castelvetrano olives, and Bronte pistachio.
Selvaggio (left) smiles as Steve Samson, once the chef at Valentino Vegas and Santa Monica before launching Sotto, commands the kitchen.
With octopus skewer, frittatina di cicorie with bitter greens and chicory, and Sicilian crudo di pesce.
Pressed, smoked silver mullet roe on fricco. Representing Sardinia.
Guanciale, sartizza picante, and anzone cured lamb (from right).
With Piero Selvaggio, Sicilian friends in L.A. since 1980.
Drago’s bomba di riso with sea urchin and orange blossom, corkscrew busiate alla trapanese dedicated to Mauro Vicente and handmade by 86-year-old Elvira Cavallo of Selvaggio’s departed restaurant Primi, and pennette alla norma with eggplant and ricotta salata (from left).
Cavallo’s handmade bucatini al pomodoro, malloreddos with homemade sausage and saffron, and thumb-size punzo al sugo with Dungessness crab and pesto (clockwise from bottom).
Came by to reminiscince and take home dessert.
Sicilian fava bean puree soup with grilled cuttlefish in squid ink and fennel pollen.
Calf brain fritter on roasted mushroom with Sardinian saffron soup with couscous and baby clams.
Lamb belly in Modica’s spicy chocolate sauce and veal roll with bread crumbs, raisins, peanuts, and cheese, served with ripieni tomatoes.
Suckling pig sprinkled in sea salt and braised lamb with mirto berry essence, served with cardoons and fennel salad.
Piero Selvaggio, Celestino Drago, Nico Chessa, and Steve Samson.
Fiore siciano, la tuma persa, pecorino grand cru, and fiore sardo D.O.P. Served with ornage and mandarin jam, eucalyptus and strawberry honey.
The Urth Cafe chef came back to his former station at Valentino to make dessert.
Fresh fig pie, cannoli, prickly pear sorbet, nougat by Corrado Assenza, melon jelly, amaretti cookies, and pabassino.
The marzipan fruits are made in Palermo by nuns who have taken a vow of silence.
Selvaggio laid out a table of Sicilian bounties.