At Silver Lake’s new Ceci’s Gastronomia, Italian grandmas rule

Two trays with cheese and sauce. The left has red sauce and the right green
Eggplant parmigiana, left, and lasagna with basil pesto at Francesca Pistorio and Francesco Lucatorto’s new restaurant, Ceci’s Gastronomia.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Chef Francesco Lucatorto and his wife and business partner, Francesca Pistorio, thought they might be stuck in Italy.

There are, of course, worse fates than living out your days with family along the coast in Liguria, but they’d traveled there last summer planning to stay only a few weeks and then return to Los Angeles to finally open a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. They had lasagna to bake and eager customers awaiting their return.

A global pandemic, an expired visa and an international travel ban upended everything. Lucatorto and Pistorio had to hit pause on building a permanent space for Ceci’s Oven, their underground Echo Park pasta operation.

Ceci’s Gastronomia, a cozy marketplace in Silver Lake with prepared foods and Italian specialties all inspired by nonne — Italian grandmothers — finally opened this month. But the journey was riddled with detours.

As anyone with a nonna can tell you, learning to cook frequently starts at an early age. Lucatorto, 31, began his time in the kitchen during childhood summers when his parents would drive from beachy Liguria so they could drop him off at his paternal grandmother’s house in mountainous Borgo Val di Taro, also known as Borgotaro, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.

“In summer they parked me there for literally over a month, and what do you do when you’re a lonely child with a grandma and a couple of friends?” Lucatorto asked. “The routine was going to get groceries, making lunch, snacks in the afternoon, then getting ready for dinner. The whole day — and I’m not saying this because it sounds romantic — the whole day with nonna revolved around what’s next to eat, and how can I help you?”

He spent afternoons and evenings forming sheets of fresh pasta and learning to make her erbazzone, a paper-thin-crusted savory pie filled with Parmesan and bitter greens (the Ceci’s version uses chicory and Swiss chard).

Both of his grandmothers cooked, he said, but it was those Borgotaro summers that spurred his interest in the culinary arts, which became Lucatorto’s field of study in high school in Liguria. The teenager began cooking in a restaurant on weekends and worked his way through the tourist-heavy region’s beach clubs, restaurants and hotels — wherever he could get hired. At 19 he traded Italy for London, where he cooked at prolific Italian chef Francesco Mazzei’s L’Anima, before realizing he needed more of a foundation. He enrolled in the prestigious culinary school ALMA, the International School of Italian Cuisine, in Colorno.

A man and a woman in aprons smile in a kitchen
Francesca Pistorio, left, and Francesco Lucatorto stand behind the counter at Ceci’s Gastronomia in Silver Lake.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

While there he met a friend who would later bring him to Los Angeles’ Providence, which sponsored Lucatorto on his first visa to work in the United States in 2013. He started at the restaurant with an internship, and by the time his visa was up, he was chef de partie. In the meantime, he fell in love with L.A.

Terroni sponsored the chef’s second visa, and eventually he joined Officine Brera (now Brera Ristorante) and helped open the Sixth & Mill pizzeria next door. The Michelin Bib Gourmand, awarded to Sixth & Mill in 2019 and a nod to restaurants of both high quality and value, is one of the highlights of his career.

He also worked for Angelini Osteria and Angelini Alimentari cafe, as well as Otium, and decided in 2019 that he was finally ready to open his own restaurant somewhere in L.A. He started small, with a pop-up called Pasta Night at the East Hollywood wine bar Tabula Rasa. He quit his job with Angelini Alimentari to focus on it and to secure a space and funding for a more permanent outlet. Three months later, pandemic closures started.

As bars and restaurants closed, with dwindling locations to host his pop-up, Lucatorto and his then-fiancée decided to try cooking out of their own home. Pistorio, 29, was working in commercial and TV production at the time and threw herself into planning and executing Lucatorto’s vision, splitting time between her career and cooking.

“To me,” she said, “from the very beginning it was a love choice.”

Together they turned their apartment kitchen into Ceci’s Oven, a weekly underground lasagna operation with classic ragus and Genovese pesto layered between béchamel and sheets of fresh pasta over and over until they filled aluminum trays to the brim. Orders were placed over Instagram DM and often sold out for the week within two hours, with Lucatorto on lasagna and focaccia duty and Pistorio manning the tiramisu. They knew they were on to something.

Then Pistorio’s visa expired, prompting a trip to Italy. But what was expected to be a relatively short stay turned out be closer to eight months due to a proclamation, signed by then-President Trump on June 22, 2020, that suspended visa holders, among other visitors and immigrants, from entering the U.S. through Dec. 31.

“It really felt like we were so close, that giving up at that point was not a smart move,” Lucatorto said. “When we moved back to Italy we considered, of course, ‘What is Plan B? What if we can never go back there?’ We definitely had that going through our mind because we didn’t know. There were no replies [from the consulate]. We heard all our friends in our condition were stuck somewhere else.” One, he said, was stalled in Mexico and weighing coming back in through Canada.

He and Pistorio chose to wait it out.

Two flat breads seen from above
A classic focaccia Genovese, left, and pissallandrea, which comes topped with tomato sauce, anchovies and olives at Ceci’s Gastronomia.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

They used their time to traverse Italy to eat and research for their hoped-for bricks-and-mortar space, planning what they believed would be their L.A. comeback. While there they also brought a bit of Los Angeles to Italy with a beachside taco pop-up at a surf club, and they consulted on a brunch menu, both in Chiavari, a coastal Ligurian town. (American brunch, they said, and barbecue are taking off in Italy.)

Eventually they settled on the concept of opening a gastronomia, a market-like business offering takeout made from classic home recipes — especially comforting nonna-like recipes. A window display might feature freshly baked focaccia, sandwiches, baked pastas, prepared salads and sweets.

They began asking friends for their favorite nonna dishes, and the texts and recipes started to roll in. There were photos of handwritten recipe cards and little folded-up slips of paper for how-tos on arancini and caponata. One bakery provided a decades-old focaccia recipe, while Pistorio’s former roommate provided instructions for her own grandma’s polpettone, a kind of meatloaf. An in-law from Rome provided a recipe for his nonna‘s oxtail sugo, which might wind up at Ceci’s — served over polenta or stuffed into a focaccino sandwich.

“Some friends of mine said, ‘Can I give you this recipe of hers so that you can make it, and when you come back to Italy you’re going to make it for me, OK?’” Pistorio said.

Their plan for Ceci’s Gastronomia was evolving from a tribute to their own nonne to one that also honored their friends’ grandmothers — as well as classic, hyper-regional cooking traditions from across Italy.

“The knowledge of our elders — that’s what we wanted, that’s what we needed,” Lucatorto said. “This is what we want to cook. My goal was always, ‘I want to cook like a grandma,’ because every time you go it’s a fest.”

A closeup of a stuffed sandwich
Focaccina with oxtail sugo, made using an in-law’s nonna‘s recipe. The stuffed focaccia sandwiches are available in a variety of flavors.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

In February 2021 Pistorio’s visa was resolved, and in March they returned to the U.S. and rented the former Alimentari space (no relation to Angelini Alimentari), a 385-square-foot storefront at 2813 W. Sunset Blvd. — with just enough room for a kitchen; a pickup window; a front counter with a custom glass display case, much like those found at their favorite gastronomias in Italy; and an espresso machine for cappuccinos and Americanos to be enjoyed with pastries (morning hours will start in September).

Eventually, Lucatorto and Pistorio hope to expand with a small fridge for bottled sauces, fresh pastas and other market goods they’ll be making onsite. Even further out, they envision a menu-planning track of weekly dishes that promote a Mediterranean diet.

“Hopefully we can educate a little bit on real, original Italian food,” he said. “When you walk in there, we want to say, ‘Ciao!’ We want to make you feel like you’re visiting a piece of Italy. [Broader] Italian cuisine is over. The future of Italian cuisine is regional.”

It’s slow food served fast, Lucatorto mused. The opening menu features their signature lasagna from the Ceci’s Oven pop-up, which is made with red wine, beef and aromatic herbs such as rosemary or sage. It’s not the only Ceci’s Oven favorite making a return: Gnocco alla Romana, fresh, pillowy discs of semolina-flour gnocchi with a cacio e pepe sauce, is on offer, as is lasagna layered with Genovese pesto.

There’s nonna-style polpette, or meatballs, as well as a daily farmers-market frittata. Caponata, inspired by Pistorio’s Sicilian nonna, features hand-chopped eggplant, olives, celery and onion, while the bunet, a kind of chocolatey dessert, hails from her family’s Piedmont side. There’s pissallandrea — focaccia topped with olives, anchovies and tomato sauce — and on opening day, a tray of sweet peppers sat marinating in agrodolce in the case.

Lucatorto’s nonna in Borgotaro, now 97, has watched and tasted her grandson’s cooking over the decades, including his execution of her own recipes taught to him decades ago. He wasn’t able to cook for her often during the extended return to Italy — for fear of COVID-19 — but Lucatorto says you can rest assured: Ceci’s Gastronomia is finally open, and it’s fully nonna-approved.