As the lunchtime rush at the Factory Kitchen is petering out, executive chef Angelo Auriana orders to our table his traditional focaccina calda di Recco al formaggio. It’s not the spongy focaccia bread that we normally associate with the similar-sounding Italian word. Instead, it’s two layers of paper-thin and crispy unleavened dough sandwiched around melted Crescenza cheese. The top layer is blistered, the result of being baked in an oven that can reach 700 degrees, and has a golden hue from the drizzle of Ligurian olive oil. A few leaves of wild arugula that sit on top give the rather minimalistic canvas a pop of color.
Auriana describes this as something like an “upside-down pizza.” As simple as it is, the combination of textures and flavors is unforgettable. It’s Italian street food specifically from the town of Recco in Liguria. And it’s this kind of regional food featured at the Factory Kitchen, as well as at its sister location Officine Brera and Sixth + Mill — a third outpost slated to open next spring — that you’ll rarely find anywhere else in Los Angeles.
As one of Auriana’s customers leaves the restaurant, he points out that this regular is originally from Brescia in northern Italy, and he loves the focaccina di Recco so much that he’ll make a nearly two-hour trek to the Factory Kitchen once or twice a week just to taste it. And because this man has never been to Recco, it’s only at the Factory Kitchen that he’s ever tried this dish.
Auriana explains that Italian street food is highly regional and seasonal, and plays to traditions. The dishes can even coincide with a specific time of year or time of day. Italians also honor crops that are only harvested in certain seasons and regions. For example, in Auriana’s hometown of Bergamo in the Lombardy region, chestnuts are an ephemeral agricultural product. “Only for that day they [harvest] all the chestnuts they can, they smoke it overnight, and then the next day you eat a smoked chestnut, but only on that day,” he says.
Auriana believes Italian street food is much more nuanced than that in L.A., where you’ll often find food trucks and carts serving foods from different cultures. Italians, on the other hand, are hyper-specific about cuisines, differentiating even between neighboring cities. “For us, [Italy] isn’t like Los Angeles,” Auriana says. “There are no 17 million people [in any city], so you go for something special, and that’s what makes real Italian street food.”
There are even protections in place for regions to make their original specialties, and people in other regions won’t copy their style. The European Union allows regions to apply for protected designation of origin (PDO) for agricultural and food products, a trademark of sorts. In the same way that sparkling wine can only be called “Champagne” with a capital C if it comes from the region of Champagne, France, Recco has this PDO status for its focaccina.
Auriana and his partner, restaurateur Matteo Ferdinandi, are driven by their desire to preserve these regional Italian peculiarities, histories and traditions in their restaurants, which all fall under the Factory Place Hospitality Group. At the Factory Kitchen, they focus on items mostly from northern Italy but aren’t tied down to any particular place, as they’ll also throw in some Sicilian dishes on the menu. You’ll find more regional plates at this trattoria, like the mandilli di seta, a handkerchief pasta made with a Ligurian almond-basil pesto; or the paccheri, a tubular pasta shape that hails from Campania and Calabria in the south. Even the Factory Kitchen’s cannoli, a popular Sicilian street food, has a special story. When Auriana attended a wedding in Italy, he fell in love with a cannoli he tried there and chased down the recipe, later perfecting it in a grandmother’s kitchen. His rendition is a light and crispy shell, which is handmade daily, filled with ricotta and then dipped in orange marmalade on one end and pistachios on the other.
Officine Brera, which is situated in the same Arts District complex as the Factory Kitchen, follows the philosophy of “cucina povera,” what they describe as the “peasant cooking style of the Italian countryside” of the Po River Valley. Here you’ll find wood-grilled meats and risotto, playing to regional peculiarities. Rice grows along the Po River Valley so it belongs on the Officine Brera menu, but you won’t find risotto at the Factory Kitchen. One of the most popular items at the restaurant is its off-the-menu street food, farinata. It’s a chickpea pancake simply made with salt, pepper and olive oil, and it hails from Genoa, the capital of Liguria. The farinata tradition goes back more than 2,000 years; it was something Genoese soldiers first created as a way to fill their bellies during their battles. The story goes that they mixed chickpea flour and water and cooked the batter on their hot shields in the sun.
When Sixth + Mill opens in the same complex, it will be the most casual restaurant of the three, focused on mostly pizza and some pasta from southern Italy. Auriana says Sixth + Mill will be much closer to the concept of Italian street food because the restaurant will be open all day and, according to him, pizza is the ultimate street food. He says he wants to focus on the regional pizzas that have sort of been forgotten in the United States. Auriana says Sicilian pizza, characterized by its thick crust or deep dish, has become the staple here due to the fact that a lot of Sicilians live stateside. It’s not that Auriana doesn’t like it — he says it’s good — but he wants to bring some other pizzas from other regions, such as Puglia and Basilicata, that don’t get as much representation here. Sixth + Mill also will serve panelle, flat, chickpea flour fritters accented with lemon and sea salt, which are especially popular in Palermo.
Auriana, who moved from Italy to the United States when he was 23, is now 57 and has spent more of his life here than he did in Italy. He may be focused on Italian traditions, but it doesn’t mean he won’t play around with the concept of these dishes. Take for instance, his pancotto at the Factory Kitchen. Traditionally, pancotto is a Tuscan bread soup, but with Auriana’s version, he serves semolina bread crostone, along with a fried duck egg and speck wrapped around greens atop a shallow pool of potato vellutata, a velvety soup. Since the temperature is usually warm in L.A., he doesn't want to make a heavy soup that would fare better in cities with colder weather.
“It’s traditional, but it’s not exactly authentic. But if you think about it, the garlic that is grown here is not the same garlic that is grown [in Italy],” he says. “If we go to that extent, then nothing is authentic anymore.”