11/15/2012 03:16:00 PM

Best Thing We Ate Last Night: Marzipan and Malloreddos at Valentino

We weren't really sure how we would be served 40 dishes and 40 wines in one night, but Piero Selvaggio, a full roster of chefs and a team of servers accomplished over the course of a few hours at Valentino last night. It was all to celebrate the Santa Monica restaurant's 40th anniversary, a milestone few restaurants reach around here.

Selvaggio worked the room as only he can, making sure everyone was on to the next course, that they had wine (and plenty of it), and stopping to talk about the menu, which featured very Sicilian and Sardinian specialties that you don't often see in LA or even the States. Sicily because it's the island where Selvaggio is from, and Sardegna, the home of Valentino's executive chef Nico Chessa. They sourced many of the ingredients from Italy, including special breads, biodynamic wines, cheeses and these gorgeous, hard-to-find marzipan fruits and vegetables made by nuns (we won't bore you with our marzipan fish photo series, but we were kind of obsessed with the tuna).

Each course featured a two to five or six bites of something, switching from Sicily to Sardegna: Panelle, deliciously crisp chickpea fritters, and eggplant rolls from one, and then octopus skewers and smoked silver mullet with organic honey from the other. We had grilled cuttlefish, maccu (fava bean soup), and lamb belly with spicy chocolate sauce; guanciale, sartizza piccante (spicy salumi), and bottarga with baby artichokes; roast suckling pig and braised lamb; and cheeses with Sicilian mandarin jams. We probably tasted all 40 things, but one or two dishes may have gotten lost in the whirl. But out of all the tasting and talking, our favorite dishes, and favorite story, came with the pasta course.
The little corkscrews with almond pesto, the bucatini with a simply perfect tomato sauce, and punzu al sugo di granchio, thumb-sized dumplings with Dungeness crab, were all made by one woman, an 86-year-old "Mama" (aka Elvira Cavalle) that Selvaggio enlisted to hand-roll the pasta. Her busiate, or corkscrews, is so intricately cut and twirled, you can taste Mama's love. She also made the malloreddos, a gnocchi-shaped pasta tossed with homemade sausage and saffron.

Chefs Steve Samson (Sotto), Celestino Drago (Drago Centro, Osteria Drago) and pastry chef Davide Giova (Urth Caffe) helped in the kitchen. And out of nowhere Wolfgang Puck popped in to say congratulations - and grab some take-out for home.

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