A 7,000 square-foot former mechanic shop in East Hollywood may seem like a curious place for Marino Monferrato to end up these days, but that's exactly what's happened. As the half-decade front-of-the-house man for Cecconi's in West Hollywood, Monferrato donned a suit and tie while recommending pricey wines to moneyed locals and hiding celebrities at tucked-away patio tables. Now he's decamped and hopped onboard the DeSano Pizza Bakery train, looking to launch the growing company's Neopolitan-style wood-fired pie operation today on a lackluster stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard.
If everything about the new pizza spot seems odd on the page - the huge space, next-to-nothing location, even the switch by Monferrato himself - all it takes is one look inside to understand. Running four full-time wood pizza ovens, the simple venue is actually plenty impressive. There's little in the way of frills and no pomp whatsoever - just a dough room, lots of cans of imported Italian tomatoes and communal seating at long wooden tables. Oh, and plenty of parking.
We sat down with Monferrato inside the cavernous pizza hall to discuss his switch to a more casual lifestyle, how his wife came to do all of the business negotiating for him and why DeSano's neighbors should be very happy - and full - now that he's around.
Squid Ink: How did you come to make the switch to DeSano from Cecconi's?
Marino Monferrato: I met Scott (DeSano) through mutual friends who were regulars at Cecconi's, when they all came in together. I had no idea who he was, I just brought a pizza for the table, being hospitable, and when I gave it to them Scott said, "This is good. Mine is better." And I thought: This is not the way to start a relationship.
That's where it started. He told me he had a pizzeria in Nashville and was opening one in Charleston, and that he was going to open in L.A., and I was going to run it. I said, Yeah, sure. But we continued to talk since then.
SI: So was he right - was his pizza better?
MM: It's funny, because eventually he asked me to come to Nashville and try the pizza. You know, at that point I was in a really good place, I loved Cecconi's, we were doing really great things, but I said, Okay, I'll come out. So we were standing in the dough room in Nashville on a Friday night, and it's packed, and they bring in this pizza, and as soon as I started to eat it I stopped talking about business. All of the business talk was between my wife and him, and I was just eating the pizza.
SI: You've traded in the suit for a much more casual look. Are you comfortable in this new role?
MM: I'm comfortable in both places, because it is still hospitality. This is more of a family restaurant, or a place to go if you don't want to cook. You can bring your family, have a drink, watch the guy tossing it, watch a game maybe on TV, and then go home. You don't have to do dishes.
I think hospitality is very important, no matter if you're working in a five stars or a Subway. The greeting is very important. The moment you step in the place, that's how your experience starts. The moment you leave, that's how it ends - it's not only sitting at the table eating a pizza. I know the pizza is good. I need to give everything else; that's my job, and that's what I love to do.
SI: So how involved will you be in the day-to-day of this new DeSano's?
MM: Very. But I'm a front-of-the-house guy. I've never been in the kitchen, cooking and tossing pizza. Are you kidding me? But I like it. Listen: I'm not going to work with the dough because I think it's an art, but I can man the oven. I don't want to put myself in the category of a pizzaiolo, because it would be a disgrace for them.
SI: So your job will just be to make sure everyone's happy?
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MM: For me, it's making sure that we're part of the community as well. So if there are community meetings, I would like to attend them. If I need to go to the school across the street and deliver pizza once a month, I will do that. It's not a problem.
Every day, we have at least 10-15 people stopping by, trying to peek in, asking when we are open. Because there's really nothing like this in the area, and I think we will actually be beneficial for the whole neighborhood as well. I feel that we've been taken in nicely. We don't bother anyone, we are making pizza. The air smells better because of the wood burning, and if I have extra pizza I give it to the neighbors. A happy neighbor is a happy house.