Valentino Looks to Italy's Two Great Islands for Its New Menu

Piero Selvaggio's Santa Monica landmark offers dishes seldom seen outside Sicily or Sardinia
photobucket/ exile_kiss

Santa Monica's legendary Valentino recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

"I am reinventing myself one more time," says Piero Selvaggio, proprietor of Valentino, the Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant that has pretty much set the standard for fine Italian dining in America since it opened more than 40 years ago.

In his new menu, he explains, "We are featuring more modern 'cucina del sud' [cooking of the south]," and it makes a significant departure from his past offerings. The new menu draws on the varied and (in America) comparatively little-known cooking traditions of Sicily, Selvaggio's homeland, and Sardinia, birthplace of his longtime chef, Nico Chessa.

Among the dishes are cuttlefish with artichokes and bottarga, calfs' brains with sweet-and-sour onions, spaghetti with Catalina Island sea urchin, malloreddus (a ridged Sardinian pasta) with purpuzza sausage and pecorino sardo, roast stuffed veal with a zucchini–mushroom cake, and a dessert assortment that includes cactus pear sorbet, watermelon-jasmine gelatin, and chocolate-covered candied oranges.

The emblematic fish of Sicily is swordfish, and there are also two specials available this fall based on that creature: an appetizer of swordfish with a salad of figs, heirloom tomatoes, olives, and capers, and a main dish of grilled swordfish steak flavored with orange zest and oregano and garnished with peaches, red onions, baby tomatoes, chickpeas, and fava beans, sprinkled with bottarga.

Diners who order either dish will be given a souvenir ceramic plate reproducing a work by the late Lenore Tawney, a celebrated fiber artist and weaver who died at the age of 100 in 2007. The fish depicted isn't a swordfish, but the plate is very pretty.

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In January, Selvaggio plans to offer another new menu, this one dedicated to "Italian-American dishes revisited." The concept, he adds, is "My journey in Italian food after 40 years."