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Help KPCC by dining with Russ Parsons, John Rabe, and the Garibaldi of the Food Revolution

Old friends Wolfgang Puck (left) and Piero Selvaggio (right) sampling truffles (and mugging) with an unknown truffle merchant.
Old friends Wolfgang Puck (left) and Piero Selvaggio (right) sampling truffles (and mugging) with an unknown truffle merchant.
Courtesy Piero Selvaggio
Old friends Wolfgang Puck (left) and Piero Selvaggio (right) sampling truffles (and mugging) with an unknown truffle merchant.
Piero Selvaggio in the wine cellar of Valentino, his 42-year old restaurant in Santa Monica
Courtesy Piero Selvaggio

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This will never happen again!

For the KPCC Auction, I've arranged a dinner for 4 at Valentino at which James Beard Award-winning food writer Russ Parsons and I will interview Piero Selvaggio about his role in the Italian side of the Food Revolution.

As you can read and hear in my interview with Piero, he was an Italian immigrant who grew up on Mama's heavy food, never dreaming there was gourmet Italian food. Piero came back from a trip to Italy a changed man, and he changed the food Americans eat by introducing revolutionary stuff like ... radicchio. It caught on, and his success in food inspired Italian winemakers to push to make better vino. I call him "the Garibaldi of the food revolution," and it's an apt title.

For the KPCC Auction, Piero is donating the dinner, Silverlake Wine is donating the wine, and Russ is donating his deep knowledge about food and drink. The food and wine alone would be a wonderful experience, and so would the history ... but combining the two will touch on all the senses to make a night you and 3 friends will remember forever.

I'm personally asking you to bid early, often, and very generously for this one-of-a-kind experience, and show your support for Off-Ramp and KPCC.

-- Off-Ramp's John Rabe 5/12/2016

Off-Ramp host John Rabe talks with Piero Selvaggio, owner and founder of Valentino Restaurant in Santa Monica. The 42-year old restaurant is one of the birthplaces of the Food Revolution.

Do you like good olive oil and balsamic vinegar? Buffalo mozzarella? Good Italian wine? Then thank Piero Selvaggio. Food cognoscenti agree that you can’t overstate Piero’s historic role in the modern food scene.

I talked with Selvaggio about his long career over a lunch at his Santa Monica restaurant Valentino, served by chef Nico Chessa. This is one of the things you need to understand about Selvaggio: he is not a celebrity chef who runs a restaurant.

He is a restaurateur from the old school, who loves pressing the flesh at the door, and making his guests — who can easily pay a few hundred dollars for a dinner for two — feel welcomed.

Valentino is recognized as one of Southern California's top restaurants, and for many years one of the nation's best, but when Selvaggio opened it in 1972, it was a red sauce Italian joint with checkered tablecloths and cheap Chianti in straw baskets.

From the beginning, it was popular  "because the Los Angeles Times wrote very nice things about us." But eventually, as Selvaggio admits, he had "shoemakers in the kitchen," and a friend told him, "Kid, you are charming and wonderful but you are not going to go very far. People are going to say, 'Valentino, what a terrible restaurant,' and before you know it, it's too late."

Selvaggio says he really didn't know better. Valentino was serving lousy versions of the food he ate growing up in Southern Italy: "Mamma's food. Pasta with ragu. Rice balls, fried, so very heavy. On Sunday we had a big stew with sausages. Very robust food with lots of pasta." 

So he wisely went back to Italy to really learn about food, and tells of being surprised by truffles, by carpaccio. He started bringing these things, plus radical (for America) stuff like really good olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and a chef back to Valentino and transformed the place and the American food scene. 

As Valentino was gaining fame and influence, a similar thing happened with Italian wine. The Lambruscos and straw-basket Chianti was replaced by good wines from makers who said, "Poppa, we gotta throw away the old barrel, we gotta throw away the crappy wines that you've been making forever and ever, and we gotta make wines with more technology, finesse, intensity, and character."

Selvaggio became their champion, assembling not the largest but the best wine list in the country.

UGH: Remember Riunite? Here's a vintage commercial

Valentino is not for everybody.

Valentino ... once described in Wine Spectator magazine as lapping other Italian restaurants in America like "a Ferrari in the fast lane of the autostrada," is now honored mostly like an antique car: undeniably beautiful but an object out of the past. That air of formality — hushed room, fine china, heavy silver, a forest of crystal wine glasses that ring like chimes when you make a toast, a small army of uniformed waiters that sees to your every need — that's the vision of fine dining that Valentino embraces. — Russ Parsons in the LA Times

Selvaggio knows it: "Right now, fine dining is going through a crisis. People want casual, noisy."

But he says he believes people will eventually get tired of their smart phones and start longing for a meal where real people, real food, and real service are the focus, not a celebrity chef and Yelp! reviews. When they do, he'll be there to take their reservation on the phone and greet them at the door.

Valentino Italian Restaurant: 3115 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica CA 90405. 310-829-4313