If you have eaten Italian food in the last half-century, you have experienced the influence of Piero Selvaggio and his restaurant Valentino, which turned 45 this year. He is credited with introducing ingredients like radicchio, arugula, balsamic vinegar, real prosciutto and the dried fish roe bottarga to Los Angeles, and many of the best local chefs and restaurateurs, including Steve Samson, Donato Poto and Angelo Auriana, have worked for him. His massive wine cellar has won every possible award. Although he is best known for his mastery of the old-fashioned proprietor-driven dining room, he helped introduce the current, less formal style of Italian restaurant at the now-shuttered Primi.
If you were a young diner plunging into the restaurant scene of the 1980s, Valentino was the restaurant you measured yourself against. It was always difficult to navigate the enormous wine list without a Sherpa, and as you dined more frequently at Valentino — it was expensive! — you found yourself weaned off Chiantis in favor of the older, well-priced Amarones and Valtellinas hidden in the spaniel-size volume. You learned which olive oils were worth the splurge, why it was worth waiting for porcini season, and why a white truffle supplement was occasionally worth a month's car payment. If a regular mentioned that she was planning a trip to Italy, she would often be handed a page of Selvaggio's hand-scribbled tips.
You also noticed that certain people in the dining room seemed to be eating better than you were, but when you had the luck to dine with a favorite, the food could be stunning, whims transformed into six-course meals, abstract desire solidified into fish and meat and rice and pasta. When critics and guidebooks called Valentino the best Italian restaurant in the United States, they were telling the truth. Even if you were the kind of diner who preferred the perfected grandmother cooking of places like Angeli Caffe or Campanile to Selvaggio-inspired complexities, Valentino was in fact very close to the top-line restaurants in Italy at the time.
But the decades progress. Tastes change. The great proprietor-driven restaurant has been eclipsed by the chef-run dining room, and the delicate curls of handkerchief pasta that Auriana used to make for the chosen few at Valentino are now available to everyone at his cavernous Factory Kitchen downtown, and a lot of the excitement about Italian food at the moment seems to be around Ori Menashe's fire-driven cooking at Bestia and Samson's classic Bolognese dishes at Rossoblu.
So you walk into Valentino. Selvaggio greets you as an old friend, as if the party can finally get started now that you are here. The dining room is bright but subdued, walls richly colored, the soundtrack leaning toward Andrea Bocelli and the better sort of Italian crooners. Prosecco is poured. An amuse-bouche appears, tuna tartare with a bit of creamy burrata cheese, and it is gone in a flash.
On this particular evening you taste crusty fried squash blossoms stuffed with cheese; a tiny molded salad made with smoked quail, blueberries and asparagus slivers; and a single ravioli filled with a duck meat emulsion and bits of mustard-cured fruit. A crepe — crespelle — is rolled around a mixture of crabmeat and béchamel sauce, then slicked with a lobster sauce. There is a plate of pearl pasta dyed black with squid ink and topped with crunchy snippets of fire-blackened octopus tentacles: playful, well-cooked and delicious.
More pasta arrives: soft, hand-rolled pici, thick spaghetti, in tomato sauce; cocoa-colored fettucine, professionally tangled, in another shellfish sauce; and what Selvaggio described as the house's gnocchi dough formed into tortelloni, with crumbly, fennel-laced sausage and a bit of tomato. So far, so good.
Still, you have had better tuna tartare, maybe even this week, and the cherry tomato garnishing the crespelle is as hard and tasteless as the ones you find in the supermarket. The seafood sauces are over-reduced and smack a bit of scorched shell, a taste straight out of 1986. November is not the best month to serve a preparation whose flavor depends on the fresh aroma of blueberries and asparagus. And the point of having the night's dinner choreographed by a proprietor or captain is that every bite you take should be ideal and of the season. The highs here are pretty high, but the others are less so.
On another night you may have a lovely, delicate lasagna, many thin sheets of pasta layered with smears of light béchamel; nicely roasted quail; grilled lamb chops; a spectacular '96 Barolo; and a beautiful semifreddo. You may also wonder why you are being served vignarola, the classic early-spring dish of favas, tiny peas and baby artichokes, on a chilly late-fall evening; or why the restaurant's version of crudo, finger-thick and almost flavorless under its refrigerator chill, is being served at all.
Tonight there is seared Ibérico pork of the highest quality, and a beautiful rabbit roulade flavored with carob — Selvaggio says the combination is popular in his home village in Sicily. He takes us back to the kitchen, introduces us to his cooks — many of whom have been at Valentino more than 30 years — and shows us how they make uovo in raviolo, a fist-size pasta packet, filled with a raw yolk and a swirl of mascarpone cheese, popularized at the San Domenico restaurant in Imola 35 years ago. We finish with cheese and a drop of sweet, concentrated Amarone wine. We are happy enough.
Has Valentino changed or have we? The answer, I fear, may be us.
Piero Selvaggio's Italian restaurant in Santa Monica, four decades on
3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 829-4313, valentinosantamonica.com
Appetizers $18-$23; pasta and risotto $20-$24; main dishes $29-$48.
5-10 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays; 5-10:30 p.m. Saturdays. Full bar. Street parking. Credit cards accepted.
Smoked quail; grilled squid with fregola; "segreto" of Iberico pork.