The term “family restaurant” isn't that common in the upper echelons of the food world. We tend to want restaurants that are rock & roll. We demand cocktail-fueled speakeasies. We long for food that's sophisticated, refined, grown-up.
But as our best chefs move through the rock-star phase of their lives and into something more … settled, they begin to understand the allure of the family restaurant. They have kids now, and because of the long hours chefs work, they want to hang out with those kids on their days off. They want to go out to eat with them, too. Why should they have to suffer through a bad meal? Shouldn't someone make a family restaurant where the food is actually good? Thus the seeds of inspiration are sown. All of a sudden, chefs are saying to me, “I wanted to open a restaurant where I can bring my kids, and where other people would want to bring their kids.”
No chefs have been more vocal about this move to family-oriented dining than Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, chef/owners of Animal and Son of a Gun, and co-owners with Ludo Lefebvre of Trois Mec and Petit Trois. None of the four restaurants I just mentioned is family-friendly in the traditional sense, though I suppose it depends on your family. But with their newest venture, Jon & Vinny's, the duo has declared its intention to create a restaurant like the ones in which the two grew up eating, an Italian-American joint serving pizza and pasta where you can bring the kids regardless of whether your particular kids are into foie gras loco moco.
Jon & Vinny's occupies the space across the street from Animal that used to be Damiano's Mr. Pizza, a grimy, old-school pizza joint with a long history and many fans. It was the type of place that figures into the mythology of people's lives, where they might have consumed food of dubious quality after long nights of drinking.
Shook and Dotolo have owned the building for years, and their decision to move Damiano's out was not without controversy. But they tried to assure people that they'd be putting in something that could also act as a neighborhood joint, a place that would be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and therefore serve as a gathering spot as well as hot spot.
To that aim, they built a small restaurant that looks like a Japanese minimalist's idea of a pizza parlor — a pizza parlor in which everything (walls, tables, chairs) is covered with smooth, light wood. A window on the back wall reveals a teeny-tiny wine shop run by Helen Johannesen, a longtime employee. The only decoration is the rows of pizza boxes above the kitchen counter.
The family-restaurant part of all this appealed to me. It's not often that it's feasible to combine my work life with my kid's social life, and I don't usually invite his elementary-school friends along for review visits. But that's just what I did at Jon & Vinny's. The two boys and I slid into the large wooden booth and ordered pizza, fried scallions and pasta. We ignored the limited kids menu — we didn't need it. We cooed at the toddler at the next table. All was well. Until Big Sean showed up.
I don't mean he actually showed up, though that isn't out of the question. After all, Big Sean's frequent producer and collaborator Kanye West has been known to eat here. In this instance, Big Sean just showed up on the restaurant's sound system. And he showed up loud.
For the uninitiated, the opening lines of Big Sean's most played song, the one that blasted through the restaurant, go like this: “I don't fuck with you/You little stupid ass bitch, I ain't fuckin' with you/You little, you little dumb ass bitch, I ain't fuckin' with you.” My kid looked at me uneasily. I looked at the toddler uneasily. My kid's friend was blissful, dancing in his seat, raising the roof. “I don't give a fuck, I don't give a fuck I don't I don't I don't give a fuck, bitch I don't give a fuck about you.”
One of the aims of Shook and Dotolo is to change the nature of the family restaurant, to bring it more in line with what we expect from great restaurants, or trendy restaurants, because God knows, many parents these days are hip enough to appreciate Big Sean and to want their salads to include burrata and white peaches. I know I'm not the only parent in L.A. who's raising her kid to delight in the appropriate interplay between char and stretch and crisp in a pizza dough, an interplay that Jon & Vinny's practically reinvents with its smallish pizzas, which are light but stiff, stretchy but crisp, Neapolitan but Californian. That you can buy a side of tangy, house-made ranch dressing for crust dipping only adds to the fun — and fuels the nostalgia many of us feel for the kind of pizza places that had no burrata to speak of.
Is it a derisive hashtag–worthy problem to have the delicate ears of my child bombarded with profanity while he enjoys very expensive and very delicious pizza? Of course it is. But come on, I'm a restaurant critic; the problems I write about are hardly humanitarian crises. And really, the disconnect between saying you have a family restaurant and making that restaurant vaguely kid-friendly in terms of atmosphere is pretty much the only problem I have with Jon & Vinny's. That and the prices, which are also not particularly in line with those of a “family restaurant.”
But neither is the food — it's much, much better. The L.A. Woman pizza is an instant classic; its crust is firm enough that its burrata topping doesn't collapse your slice, which can be delivered to your mouth with grace and ease. The pastas, particularly the meat-heavy ragus and Bolognese, are soulful and straightforward.
The portions are smaller than what you might expect — the one place where Jon & Vinny's veers wildly from its Italian-American roots is its inability to give you way more food than you can reasonably eat.
I wonder if the experience of opening Petit Trois influenced these chefs. Where Petit Trois' aim is to present classic French dishes and render them as perfectly as possible (often eclipsing the inspiration in terms of sheer deliciousness), Jon & Vinny's does the same with Italian-American food. For the most part, the chefs shy away from the kind of creativity you find across the street. Instead, you get meatballs that are an absolute paragon of the form, a blend of short rib and pork shoulder that's mild and tangy in all the right ways, served with deep-red marinara. A chicken Parmesan is the exact crispy, sloppy delight you want it to be, just elevated in its ingredients and intensity of flavor. There are touches of L.A. modernism as well, in the marinated Calabrian tuna bruschetta with crunchy mirepoix, in the farmers market–driven salads and in a few of the non-meaty pastas, which are downright restrained.
The thing that shines through, even in the choice of music, is the chefs' sense of joy. There's soft serve ice cream for dessert, and great fat doughnuts filled with so much chocolate cream it spurts everywhere when you try to bite it.
The breakfast menu is insanely good — you can get fluffy buttermilk pancakes with berries and salted butter, or olive oil–fried eggs with grilled kale and a round of 'nduja, the spicy, pepper-rich spreadable sausage. If these dudes had opened a breakfast-only spot, there'd be lines down the block. As it is, breakfast is the quietest time of day. (Good luck getting in at dinner, though. It's doable, but not easy.)
Maybe they'll tone down the playlist. Maybe I'll leave the kid at home. Jon & Vinny's is at least a great leap forward for the idea of a family restaurant — and certainly for Italian-American comfort food and for the all-day eatery. In its own way it's a great restaurant. I ain't fuckin' with you.
JON & VINNY'S | Three stars | 412 N. Fairfax Ave., Fairfax | (323) 334-3369 | jonandvinnys.com | Daily, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. | Entrees, $14-$28 | Beer and wine | Street parking