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The top of her game

Times Staff Writer

Wow, talk about your matches made in culinary heaven. Cucina paradiso is coming to Los Angeles.

Nancy Silverton -- pastry chef extraordinaire, founder of La Brea Bakery, the woman who single-handedly brought great bread to Los Angeles and, until this month, was co-owner of Campanile restaurant -- is joining forces with Mario Batali -- pony-tailed Molto Mario of New York’s Babbo, Esca, Lupa and Otto’s (among others) -- to create a new Italian restaurant in Los Angeles.

Silverton is scouting locations, and Batali says he hopes the restaurant will be open “by the end of the summer” -- which may prove ridiculously optimistic.

Batali’s father owns a salumeria in Seattle, and the salumi he provides for his son’s restaurants will be featured prominently at the Silverton/Batali restaurant -- now tentatively named Mozza Bar, Batali told me (although that name came as a surprise to Silverton when I mentioned it to her).

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Silverton says Batali is one of several out-of-town restaurateurs who have approached her about a joint venture in the past year. She chose him because she likes his casual approach to Italian food and his emphasis on first-rate, natural ingredients.

“He’s the perfect partner,” she says. “I have a lot to learn from him.”

Batali is equally complimentary toward her. “I would only come to L.A. if Nancy were involved,” he told me last week. “She’s the Zen mistress of all that is great and delicious about Italian food. She appreciates it with the same passion I do. We like the same things -- real, delicious food served in holes in the wall and barely comfortable joints.”

Silverton says their restaurant will be “a small, casual place -- 60 seats, maybe 80 -- rustic, nothing fancy and we’ll have a mozzarella bar and we’ll serve sandwiches and Mario’s dad’s cold cuts and” -- she pauses and swipes absentmindedly at the reddish-brown ringlets piled atop her head, spilling into her sunglass-shaded eyes. Silverton’s hazel eyes are extremely light-sensitive, so she almost always wears prescription sunglasses during the day, even indoors, where we are now, having lunch at Angelini Osteria.

This small, casual Beverly Boulevard spot is her “current favorite restaurant in Los Angeles,” she says, and it’s also, in some ways, a model for what she and Batali want to do, probably somewhere in the same general area.

At 50, having sold La Brea Bakery to an Irish conglomerate in 2001 for $56 million, Silverton probably doesn’t have to work another day the rest of her life.

“We had a lot of partners, though, so I only got a small percentage of that money,” she says before acknowledging, with a quick, self-conscious laugh that, yes, she’s a millionaire -- a multimillionaire -- “but not a multi-multimillionaire.”

“I’m certainly not living from paycheck to paycheck, but I had two uncles who lived into their 90s, and if I live that long, the way I’m living now” -- she has a house in Italy and drives a Porsche and a BMW SUV -- “I’d have to be very careful and watch what I spend if I didn’t work again.”

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But Silverton doesn’t work just for the money.

“I love food,” she says. “I love eating and cooking and thinking about food and talking about food and writing about food and doing things with food that other people aren’t doing, especially doing things with good ingredients that I personally like to eat.”

In addition to planning her joint venture with Batali and working on a new cookbook (her sixth), she’s helping to create a kitchen garden project at the 24th Street Elementary School in the West Adams district, where she hopes to “cook and run the classroom,” teaching inner-city children about nutrition, produce and the relationship between what we eat and how it’s grown and cared for.

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Schoolyard project

The project is patterned after the Edible Schoolyard that Alice Waters created in Berkeley, and Silverton is approaching it with the same determination and dedication she brings to developing a new recipe and starting a new business. At her urging, La Brea Bakery now has a booth at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, and 90% of the proceeds from the booth’s weekly sales will go to the kitchen garden project.

As if that weren’t enough, on Feb. 15 she’ll start working one night a week at La Terza on West 3rd Street.

The kitchen at La Terza, like the kitchen at Angelini, is run by Gino Angelini, and after Silverton helped develop La Terza’s dessert menu, he urged her to do something there on a regular basis.

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“We decided on a Tuesday night tavolo fredo, a ‘cold table,’ ” Silverton says. “We’ll have salumi and seafood and salads -- the ultimate antipasto. We’ll use only the best artisanal products. People will come and take what they want, and I’ll be there to talk to them and help out. There’s nothing like it in Los Angeles now.”

Silverton says Batali has tried to discourage her from doing the tavolo fredo -- it will officially be called tavola Italiana (Italian table) -- at La Terza because he’d like to incorporate a similar concept in their restaurant.

Batali confirmed his opposition when we spoke. “Once we get our real estate deal set, I think Nancy will realize that a brand is something you protect, not spread to the wind,” he said.

Silverton says she’s determined to plunge ahead, regardless of what Batali says. “I don’t care if La Terza keeps doing the ... [tavola Italiana] after I leave to work at our place, and they compete with us,” she says. “I always figure, ‘Let everyone do what they want and may the best man win.’ We’ll all eat better, no matter what.”

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Besides, Silverton sees the tavola Italiana as a test run of sorts for her new restaurant. She has much the same feeling toward her “Mozzarella Monday” at Jar restaurant.

She began that last fall at the 15-seat Jar bar, offering about a dozen small dishes, priced $8 to $12 each and all featuring mozzarella.

There’s mozzarella with prosciutto, arugula and tapenade, served on a baguette; mozzarella with grilled eggplant, basil and roasted tomatoes and onions; mozzarella with radicchio, garlic confit, mint pesto and hazelnuts; mozzarella with....

Silverton now serves 35 or 40 customers every Monday at Jar, and -- with a policy of first-come, first-served -- there’s almost always a wait. The last time I was there, folks were standing in line from 6 o’clock on, waiting for a stool to be free.

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Both “Mozzarella Monday” and tavola Italiana have a common antecedent -- “Grilled Cheese Night” at Campanile. Indeed, Silverton says all three grow out of the same impulse: “I’m single-concept driven and obsessed with re-creating things I’ve liked.

“I was on a 10-day eating tour of Italy with several other chefs and restaurateurs,” Silverton says, “and we ate in all these great, serious restaurants every night, and on the last night, we went to a wine bar outside Florence and had wonderful open-face sandwiches, and we all agreed that it was the best meal of the trip.”

“Grilled Cheese Night” at Campanile followed soon after. It’s been every Thursday since, featuring the best ingredients Silverton can find. The combinations -- burrata with fried piquillo peppers, caper relish and crisp garlic; Gruyere with marinated onions and whole grain mustard among them -- are the best she can create.

But Silverton’s warm, lively personality is as responsible as the food for the enormous popularity of the weekly event. She loves interacting with customers at the bar, and over time, “Grilled Cheese Night” was instrumental in creating a virtual army of Silverton followers -- regulars who came to Campanile every Thursday and now go to Jar for mozzarella every Monday.

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Some have become personal friends, visiting her in Italy, where she’s happy to cook for them, her relatives, other friends, other chefs and virtually anyone else who shows up. (Silverton fell completely in love with Italy while vacationing there in the late 1990s. She now owns a home surrounded by olive trees on a half-acre in Umbria, just outside the gates to the hilltop town of Panicale.)

“Grilled Cheese Night” has been so successful that Mark Peel, the chef at Campanile and her longtime husband and partner there, intends to continue it, even without her. (The two are getting divorced, and he recently bought out her interest in the restaurant.)

Peel and Silverton, who met when they worked at Michael’s in Santa Monica and married when they cooked together at Spago, opened Campanile in 1989. The bakery was an afterthought, born of their determination to serve good bread in the restaurant. They found the right space; the bakery opened first, then the restaurant and the rest is history -- much of it fueled by Silverton’s infectious passion.

“She has the rare gift of being so passionate about what she’s doing that everyone working with her is drawn into it and they all really dedicate themselves to working hard,” says Manfred Krankl, who was the longtime managing partner of the bakery and the restaurant and now runs Sine Qua Non Winery.

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Peel is a very talented and often under-appreciated chef, but it was the bakery that became an instant, big-money success.

In the early years, Silverton baked from midnight to early morning, sleeping in shifts, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and again in the early evening.

Given everything she’s involved in now, I wouldn’t be surprised if Silverton again has to start doing without enough sleep. Both she and Batali are reluctant to -- as she puts it -- “talk about prototypes or to say, ‘Today Los Angeles, tomorrow New York, then the world.’ But if it works here, then, yes, I’d like to open one of these restaurants in New York and then....” Her voice trails off and she fiddles with her hair again.

Silverton often uses the word “driven” -- as in “single-concept driven” and “ingredient-driven” -- to describe herself. To me, she’s always seemed so laid-back that I find it hard to think of her as driven, period. But folks who have worked with her and know her well tell me I’m dead wrong. She is driven -- driven to succeed and driven to perfect whatever she’s working on.

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She once made several thousand different homemade Oreo-type cookies before she was satisfied with the taste and put the recipe in one of her cookbooks.

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Sharing the helm

All this makes me wonder how her strong, driven personality will mesh with Batali’s equally strong, driven personality. Their mutual-admiration society notwithstanding, how will they co-exist in the same kitchen? How will they divide responsibilities and share authority?

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Silverton says they haven’t discussed that yet “except that since the restaurant is in L.A., I’ll be the boss.” Batali says they’ll “bounce ideas off each other on food and service, and by the time we open, we’ll already have thought of everything that could possibly go wrong.”

Batali plans to open another restaurant this summer, in Las Vegas, so he figures he can make his Western visits productive by visiting both restaurants on the same trips.

“I’ll probably be in L.A. for the first three or four weeks after we open,” he says, “and then I’ll come out when I want to. Nancy and I already share an ideology about Italian food, so I don’t see any problems.”

Batali may be a bit naive, caught up as he is in the early excitement of this venture. But I hope he’s right, and the restaurant is successful -- just not so successful that Silverton leaves L.A. to retire in Umbria ... or to move to New York to oversee a global Mozza Bar empire.

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David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com. To read previous “Matters of Taste” columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-taste.


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