Walk into Spartina on any given day and you might find the pungent scents of fermented black beans and sautéed clams wafting in the air. While this marriage of ingredients is more likely to be found in a Chinese restaurant, it’s surprisingly served in a white wine sauce and on a bed of house-made linguine in this Italian eatery.
Balancing the delicate line between Asian and Italian cuisine is just one of the special skill sets that Spartina chef-owner Stephen Kalt possesses. If you spend even 15 minutes with the guy, you’ll quickly understand how he’s able to do it: He’s hardcore about pasta. After all, the New York transplant has spent the last 30 years perfecting it. He is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to Italian cuisine.
We recently joined Kalt in his Spartina kitchen to learn how to make a variety of pasta shapes by hand, from trofie to pappardelle and tortellini. As Kalt kneaded and rolled out the dough, he casually sprinkled in history lessons about the reasons Italians use certain ingredients. For example, he explained that Northern Italy is known for being wealthier than the South; therefore Northern pasta makers use egg yolks in their dough, while Southerners employ water and flours such as semolina and durum.
Kalt doesn’t have those warm and fuzzy stories about how he had an Italian grandmother who used to make him meatballs; he’s mostly self-taught when it comes to cooking. “That’s not really how I reference food, so I really allow what’s around me to influence what I’m doing,” he says. “I have a very, very deep and sophisticated high-end French training, so that never escapes me. I’m very technique-driven, so it’s almost impossible for me to not look at things through the prism of my training and my upbringing and where I exist now.”
He cut his teeth at New York’s seminal French restaurant Le Cirque, and spent years training under influential chef Daniel Boulud. At Le Cirque, he learned patience and technique in preparing French food, and it wasn’t until he left and traveled to Italy, Spain and North Africa that he started to be inspired by other flavors and rustic cuisine. Colman Andrew's book Catalan Cuisine also made an indelible mark on his life. “There are these really beautiful, simple ways to approach cooking, and that moved me very much,” Kalt says. “And I think it was about that time in the early 1990s when I felt this strong calling for this simpler food.”
This inspired Kalt to open his first Spartina location, one that was pan-Mediterranean, in New York City in 1993. He continued to operate it until 2001. A few years later, he moved on to serve as the chef of Corsa Cucina at Wynn Las Vegas before journeying to L.A., where he eventually launched his West Coast version of Spartina — this time leaning more toward California-Italian — on Melrose Avenue in December 2015.
Besides Kalt’s long history in the kitchen, it’s his nostalgic memories that play an important role in how he gets his inspiration. Take, for instance, Kalt’s fermented black bean and clams pasta dish; or his fettuccine with Wagyu beef belly ragu, spicy mushroom duxelle and Thai basil. These Asian flavors take him back to his childhood. “As a child, I was lucky enough that my father used to take us to Chinatown when we were kids in New York,” Kalt says. “I’m a huge believer in the impact of childhood flavors in the whole way you think and approach food.”
There’s also something very special about L.A.’s diverse cuisines that serves as Kalt’s muse. “It’s interesting, when I came to L.A. I just couldn’t help but be influenced by these ethnic communities,” he says. “It’s different than New York. New York is obviously a huge melting pot. There’s an extraordinary amount of diverse cultural food there, but you have to take the train out to Flushing. But there’s something about this city. It seems to be right here. You drive two miles down the street and you cross over Koreatown, [Historic] Filipinotown and Little Armenia. There’s something about it that really spoke to me.”
Because of all these inspirations, you won’t find only Asian flavors in his pastas. There are some extremely traditional Italian dishes listed on Spartina’s menu, such as beef short rib–stuffed tortelloni coated in brown butter and sage. “There probably isn’t a restaurant in Italy where you won’t find some kind of filled pasta served with brown butter and sage,” he says. Then there’s his bucatini with a spicy arrabiata sauce; Kalt notes, “Both the pasta and the sauce are very typical in the slightly Southern region of Italy.”
Kalt will depart from the classics and make his own L.A. versions of traditional Italian dishes, such as the Northern Italy pizzoccheri, which is normally buckwheat pasta accompanied by Savoy cabbage, speck, smoked prosciutto and cheeses. His dish is made with Brussels sprouts and bacon, which caters to the L.A. crowd. For Kalt, he’s just trying to do what he thinks makes up the authentic Italian experience. “Local, regional, and something that’s close that can have impact over time,” Kalt says. Luckily, California is perfect for that.
The chef knows his methods aren't traditional, and people may find fault in that. He says if you ask 10 people what is Italian food, probably 40 percent will name chicken Parmesan, an Italian-American dish, and ask him why he isn’t serving it at his restaurant. Others will tell him he should open a region-specific Italian eatery like Angelini Osteria, but Kalt says it's tough for him to confine himself to one region. He has a voracious appetite for books and traveling, which adds to his uncanny ability to easily take a deep dive on the intricacies of a cuisine.
Kalt is knowledgeable in the history of Italian fare and opens up the debate on what is really considered authentic Italian. “You have to understand, if you go back 500 years back in Italy, the Greeks came to Italy, the Spaniards, the French and the Austrians,” Kalt says. “If you go all around Italy to Venice, there are enormous Turkish and Middle Eastern flavors — there is an impact. And people will say, ‘That’s not Italian food.’ Well, they don’t even know that Italy wasn’t even the country you know of it as until relatively recent history. It was the House of Savoy. It was a very, very mixed set of kingdoms that at some point got pulled together into one big country. It had an enormous impact from the outside, so what we see sometimes as true Italian cooking, believe me it had an influence from somewhere else.”
It’s this kind of knowledge and Kalt's fervent studying of technique that allow him to successfully veer from what’s considered traditional Italian. “One thing I learned that was incredibly important when I was in the kitchen at Le Cirque with Daniel Boulud was, 'Never let your reach exceed your grasp in cooking,'" Kalt says. “In other words, really know what you know, really control things. And the more knowledge you have, and the way you do them, the more you control them. Cooking is really about control. It’s great to be creative, and obviously we have extraordinary people around us and I’m fairly creative, but I’m a believer in technique and control and knowledge — and then your creativity launches from there.”
When Kalt opened his first Spartina location on the East Coast, Italian cuisine was different. “In 1993 in New York City, there was much more fine dining, and there was very casual dining,” he says. “It was just at the beginning of casual fine dining, however you want to define it. And even in those days my restaurant, Spartina in New York, was a relatively casual place that was accessible and informal. You know, we had cloths on the tables, everyone still ordered an appetizer and an entree. It was just a different mentality in the world then. We had a lot of style, there were people in the neighborhood that were artists, and it was a great place to be. It was a very hip thing going on, but it was very much New York ’90s.”
His L.A. Spartina outpost, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, fits in much more with the laid-back SoCal vibe. “L.A. in 2015 was a completely different world,” Kalt says. “Not only across the board do people live more casually, they’re much more knowledgeable about food, and their interest in food and beverages is much broader. But they absolutely do not want formality. ... [It’s also] accessible cooking, very market-driven, very product-driven, very seasonal and not traditional.”
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Kalt sees a major difference in Italian cuisine between L.A. and New York today. To him, since New York is closer to Europe, and L.A. to Asia, the East Coast has many more European-focused restaurants, especially Italian. “There must be — I’m not going to exaggerate — there are probably 5,000 Italian restaurants in New York,” Kalt says. “It’s a different kind of a city. First of all, it’s much more populated, but I think that what’s interesting. What’s different about New York where it has evolved is that they’ve tried to take Italian food and take it up to the level of, let’s say, four-star dining more than anything. [Like] what Mario Batali did. They wanted to prove that Italian dining should be at the same level as French dining because French dining ruled New York for years, even though there were so many Italian places there.”
Kalt believes Angelenos just aren't as interested in a fine-dining experience as in New York. “Count on your hand how many fine-dining restaurants are in L.A.,” Kalt says. “Literally, it’s Josiah Citrin, it’s Michael Cimarusti, it’s CUT steakhouse, it’s Spago. I think that the key driver [in L.A.] is freshness, lightness and quality. Take a look, there are great places here, but they all are pretty casual, no tablecloths, unbuttoned shirts on the waiters and rolled-up sleeves — and I think that’s the big difference between our two cities, culturally.”
As for Kalt, you can keep expecting his dishes at Spartina to keep evolving because that’s just the way he is. “I just keep working organically, I just try to keep moving, I don’t stay static,” Kalt says.
7505 Melrose Ave., Fairfax. (323) 782-1023, spartina.la.