In the 1950s and ‘60s, fine dining in Los Angeles was centered in Hollywood. There was Chasen’s, La Rue, Scandia, Ma Maison (if you were lucky enough to have the unlisted telephone number) and a few other fine restaurants, usually in the French mode.
Little by little tastes changed. A Thai restaurant opened in Culver City and my wife and I would drive there for the experience of exotic food, never thinking that some day there would be dozens of Thai restaurants throughout the city. A Chinese restaurant on Olympic Boulevard began serving “moo shoo” dishes: chopped vegetables and meats served with pancakes for wrapping.
In the early ‘70s, Italian food began to become more popular. In 1972, Piero Selvaggio opened Valentino Restaurant on Pico Boulevard in a run-down neighborhood in Santa Monica, and for several years it was “the” place to go for a high-end dinner — if you could afford it. Over the years it also became famous for having the best wine list on the West Coast.
The others have come and gone. All are only memories. Where once was moo shoo pork there is now an antique store. Wolfgang Puck has opened restaurants all over the world, but none with the chic of Ma Maison. Valentino remains, and — surprisingly — Piero looks the same as he did 30 years ago.
The restaurant did go through a decline. Many of the wines were destroyed in an earthquake, and only recently replaced. The original chef, Gianni, opened his own restaurant in Brentwood (still there), and chefs came and went — some good, some less good. Finally Piero hired the well known architect Cosimo Pizzulli to redecorate.
A number of customer reviews on the Internet mention that the restaurant looks “old fashioned.” To my taste, Valentino is the most beautiful restaurant in Los Angeles. Instead of the modern custom of putting everyone into one large, noisy room, the restaurant has various rooms, lots of space between tables and booths, and little private spaces where you can talk with friends and not feel like you are participating in the conversation at the next table.
Valentino also has its own parking lot, which makes it very convenient, although it would feel more “high class” if there were no valet charge.
The wine list remains one of the best in town, and the restaurant is a draw for wine lovers seeking out hard-to-find wines, especially those from Italy.
But what about the food and service?
There are incredibly harsh remarks about the service on the Internet. I can’t explain that. Whenever I am there the service is above average, although not hurried. Usually Piero is there himself, to look over things and make suggestions (which can sometimes be a bit pricey). The senior staff has been there a long time, and they are always attentive.
Few complain about the food. The dishes are somewhere between the ultra modern innovative foods that some like, and old time Italian restaurants specializing in spaghetti and meatballs. There is always a fresh fish dish, osso bucco in traditional style, and a good selection of shellfish, veal and chicken dishes prepared Italian style.
But most agree that the best reason to go to Valentino, other than for the wine list, is for the pasta. This is one of the half-dozen restaurants in town that really do make pasta like back home in Italy. And above all, Valentino is famous for its pasta with white truffle shaved over it, almost just like in Alba, Italy. The last time I had it, just a few months ago — not even during white truffle season — it was delicious and worth the visit.
In a few weeks I will be in Alba for the white truffle festival. The pasta and the truffles will be superb. But the ambiance, the service, and the comfort in the restaurants will be no better than at Valentino. And it’s a lot further from home.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
If You Go
3115 Pico Blvd.
Santa Monica, Calif.