What enters your mind when twirling fennel pollen–dusted spaghetti around your fork? Probably not much more than “Just how quickly can I get this into my mouth?” And that’s fair, because L.A.’s emerging renditions of Italian cuisine are incredible. But there’s a story behind all that beautiful bread and cheese. Italian food wasn’t always held in the high esteem it is today — certainly not $30-plate-of-pasta esteem.
The evolution of Italian dining in Los Angeles is long and complex, and predates the well-known checkered tablecloths of the midcentury. The new Italian fare we know and love, be it an innovative pasta dish at Alimento or Bestia, or a perfectly paired pizza-and-wine combo from Sotto or South End, was once considered low-class and, at one point, the food of “the enemy.”
Italian food was brought to Los Angeles in the 1800s by immigrants from poverty-stricken Southern Italy and Sicily. For them, Italian cooking was based on modest, local ingredients, and rarely included land animal protein — definitely not the beef, chicken and veal that’s almost required today. Meatballs hadn’t even entered the picture. “It was simple peasant food with economical ingredients,” says Marianna Gatto, executive director of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.
According to Gatto, the first traces of Italian offerings outside of the home were in immigrant boarding houses, which may have paved the way for early Italian restaurants in L.A.’s long-lost Little Italy. Located on Olvera Street, it eventually expanded into present-day Chinatown and housed many thriving Italian businesses, including a restaurant called Cavour, which is now the Chinese American Museum.
It is believed that when establishments like Cavour appeared in the early 1900s, regional Italian dishes started making their way onto menus. These dishes evolved out of simple Italian cooking, now with access to American meat and poultry, which pleased the palates of the time. Along with the classics, menus often included stateside favorites like steak and baked potatoes, to satisfy a mainly non-Italian clientele. Some operated under the facade of French or Italian-French to ease Americans into the idea of dining on what was long seen as “peasant food.” A well-known example was the Paris Inn, an Italian restaurant under a French guise.
Around the same time, immigration restrictions reduced Southern European immigration by 98 percent, which may have slowed the influences of Italian cooking on Italian-American cuisine. In the 1930s, Italy joined the Axis that made Italy, Germany and Japan “the enemy.” That caused businesses such as the Italian-American Grocery Company to change its name to the more patriotic Little Joe’s. Some Italian-owned businesses placed “Speak American!” signs in their windows to prove their loyalty to their new home. But once immigration restrictions were lifted in the 1950s, Italian dining began its monumental growth into the red-sauce eateries of the midcentury.
“The Italian food of the immigrants of the 1950s to 1970s was honest but not flashy,” says Piero Selvaggio, restaurateur and founder of Valentino, the restaurant credited with pioneering modern Italian fine dining in Los Angeles. “The food then was mostly from the southern part [of Italy]. The famous time of the checkered tablecloths, abundant garlic, many version of pizzas, robust red sauces and straw Chianti bottles. Anything better than that was considered Continental, because the north of Italy didn't have much presence.”
This was the golden age of Italian-American dining. Frank Sinatra’s famous haunt, Villa Capri, invented Steak Sinatra, a heavy dish of sliced beef and wine over pasta. Singing waiters at Miceli's entertained diners over chicken marsala, and people celebrated birthdays with fettuccini Alfredo at Musso and Frank’s. Hollywood’s affinity for Italian food, along with affluent Angelenos’ travels to Italy, brought back new tastes and expectations and put Italian food on the map in Southern California.
While the '50s and '60s ushered Italian dining into the American embrace, it was not until the mid-1970s that the core of Italian cooking — quality ingredients — started to take priority. Selvaggio admits that when Valentino opened in 1972, his menu wasn’t quite up to snuff. But after taking a trip back to Italy to connect with his roots, he realized the importance of ingredients and skill, and applied it to Valentino’s menu.
“With us, things changed in the late '70s, and by bringing talented chefs, superior products and a better ambiance, we started presenting a more elaborate cucina. Dishes were better presented, the imported cheeses, wines, vegetables — rucola, radicchio, porcini, tartufi — made the difference, and wines became much better. All of that has been carried forward and, as more people traveled more, as the press had interesting [things] to write — and TV of course — Italian food became fashionable and more popular.” Valentino’s foray into the higher echelons of Italian cooking is generally seen as a mile marker in the evolution of Los Angeles’ Italian cuisine.
“I'd divide Italian dining in L.A. into four epochs: Miceli's to Valentino, Valentino to Angelini, Angelini to Bestia, and then Bestia to present,” says Alimento owner-chef Zach Pollack. “Mozza is obviously a
huge player — perhaps the single most important Italian restaurant in the city — but chronologically I'd have to start that epoch with Angelini.
“In other words, Italian-American gave way to upscale 'fancy' Italian, which in turn yielded to a more honest, tradition-inspired, market-driven Italian, followed by today's more creative, even 'fusion-friendly' Italian. I'll probably take heat for using the word fusion to describe Italian food, but if you look at the best restaurants in this category, the international inspiration is irrefutable.”
Global influences are impossible to avoid in a city like Los Angeles, where cultures and ideas are constantly swirling together. And why should they be avoided? The 1980s and '90s saw further reinvention of Italian cooking, with stars such as the Drago Brothers’ Celestino and Nancy Silverton’s
Campanile turning up the heat on Italian classics with fresh, local foods and introducing regional Italian ingredients, namely burrata, to the U.S.
Cheese maker Mimmo Bruno, owner of Pomona cheese plant Di Stefano Cheese, credits Silverton with bringing burrata into the spotlight. “In 1992, Nancy Silverton started [using] burrata at Campanile and changed Italian food,” Bruno says. “It changed minds and opened up new ideas for chefs.”
Nearly 25 years later, burrata is offered at the majority of L.A.’s many Italian restaurants. This gorgeous cheese may have helped kicked things off for the state of Italian food today, encouraging chefs to experiment with unique, regional ingredients. As if we needed another reason to love the creamy stuff.
“The inspiration of today's chefs is mostly their interpretation of an Italian-American brand, more based now on local products, artisanal cheese makers, butchers, especially salumi, farmers and gelato makers,” Selvaggio says.
“An Italian restaurant today incorporates most of these elements and the casual approach to taste and comfort that’s expected in an Italian place. The Italian restaurant today is perceived as more good trattoria than a serious, pretentious restaurant,” he continues. “There is almost no comparison with the menus of the '70s or even '80s.”
Los Angeles’ Italian food scene has broken boundaries from the beginning, first during the turn of the century by disguising itself as French or continental, and again when red-checkered tablecloths became a symbol of status and celebration. Today, new Italian restaurants are appearing across the city, led by young chefs applying what they’ve learned from their predecessors, and developing their own recipes and methods. The evolution will undoubtedly continue, and in the meantime, who’s up for some burrata pizza and a bottle of Sangiovese?