One of the first things fine-dining legend Piero Selvaggio will tell you is that “the restaurant business is the art of surviving. Every day and every season and every year.” If survival is an art, Selvaggio is one of the Old Masters of his medium. The Sicilian native opened Valentino in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1972, when Italian cuisine was “‘Third World’ food,” and has steered his restaurants and the American experience of Italian cuisine through the succeeding four decades of upheaval in dining culture.
From pizza and checkered tablecloths to the Neapolitan craze, on through the celebrity-chef fetish, the shrinking of plates, the great gluten aversion and the Instagram obsession, Selvaggio, 70, has endured and pioneered.
Perhaps Selvaggio’s great accomplishment has been the popularization—in some cases outright introduction—in the United States of now-staples like truffles, prosciutto, radicchio, salumi, burrata, mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, arugula and balsamic vinegar. “Somebody had to do it. I’m lucky I was the one,” he says. “The timing was right, and now it’s very, very rewarding to see the quality of olive oil that’s in every supermarket,” for example. (WineSpectator.com members can read more about Selvaggio’s background in “America’s Italian Maestro,” from the Oct. 31, 2012, issue.)
Selvaggio had the foresight to incorporate wine into his dining experience and build up a cellar well before that was commonplace, at a time when American knowledge of fine Italian wine was limited to just a handful of labels bearing “the usual ‘B,’ like Brunello and Barolo.” He recalls that Marvin R. Shanken, who had recently purchased Wine Spectator, in 1979, heard about the substantial wine list and visited his restaurant to tour the cellar. Valentino has held Wine Spectator’s highest honor for wine-list excellence, the Grand Award, since the Restaurant Awards were introduced in 1981.
Selvaggio spoke with associate editor Ben O’Donnell about the challenges and rewards of guiding a culinary institution through the current restaurant-scape.
Wine Spectator: What is the most recent important evolution in restaurant culture?
Piero Selvaggio: In the 2000s, the whole thing changes with technology. So suddenly we have a restaurant that you can see a menu online, Instagram that will show you every picture. So that anticipation and that excitement of going to a restaurant has been deleted. That is something that, for somebody like me, is a little difficult to accept, because I was so used to being the creator, with the wow factor and the little anticipation and surprise.
But then it’s nice to see at the same time that now people have a knowledge of the [food] product. It’s nice to see how much the wine culture has improved.
WS: It’s a little bit more difficult and competitive to reach today’s younger diners and convey a level of quality in terms of food and wine. How are you responding to that at your restaurant?
PS: I try to make them feel comfortable, first of all. As you know, the dress code has loosened up a great deal. I try to make them understand that even if you read “timbale of mushroom,” it’s just fresh mushroom blended with some cream or with some cheese and things like that. So it’s important that there has to be a dialogue, because if they feel a comfort zone, then it’s easier for them to come back and not say, “No, this is a restaurant where my parents used to take me, but it’s not for me; I like to have a loud, noisy place where I’m going to have mixology.”
When somebody doesn’t look at me because he’s so busy looking at his iPad or at his cellphone, I have to be annoyed. Have at least the sense to say, “Good evening”; say something and respond to me, so I can make you feel at ease. If you are receptive, then it’s a joy, because then we can share with you what we know, what we can suggest, what we have fresh, who’s our chef, and why we have been here for 45 years. From there, everything tastes better, everything will be more positive!
WS: What are a few specific frustrations you have with the current dining culture?
PS: Now, social media has become so powerful and strong, and everybody has an opinion. You have to take the good with the bad. You know, I stopped not sleeping at night a long time ago, because there was a moment when my wife said, “‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry!’ You say ‘I’m sorry!’ seven times during your sleep! I cannot do that for the rest of my life!” [laughs]. You take the restaurant home, and when there is some not very successful evening, it stays with you.
There is, of course, the little annoyance that comes with the fact that in California, the fad of bringing [your own] wine into a restaurant has completely gone out of proportion. Because there are people that come with a suitcase of wine, people that come with two or three bottles of wine. So the perusing of the wine list to discover certain wines is not also the main purpose of having fine dining any more. So that’s on the negative.
WS: In terms of food, what is exciting to you right now, and what are trying to influence people toward?
PS: Lately, I’ve been in love with how the traditional dishes of the south of Italy—especially Sicily, where I come from—can be revisited, can be recreated. Old products that have a connection to history, to our culture. Sicily is so lucky because the shrimp are incredible. The tomatoes from Pachino are among the best in the world. The pistachios, Bronte is famous for. We have an area called Nebrodi that are mountains near Messina that have spectacular black pigs and therefore, they equal great meat: prosciutto, sausage and things like that. We also have the salts of Sicily, among the best in the world, and salt is becoming another novelty. The wheat from the windmills, the way they used to grind the wheat in the past, and now they are coming back to that. I like very much to think that the south hasn’t been explored completely from a food point of view.
Same thing [with the wines], this explosion of the Etna wines around the volcano: The volcanic soil has proven that there are spectacular wines to be made, and so with a great deal of pride I go into introducing some of those wines. The southern Italy of 50 years ago was just producing grapes and sending them north to be used to make more mishmash. Now there is a seriousness to making better wine.
There are all of these little things that, when you put them together, have so much richness and so much excitement. Part of my joy is that all of this long experience and knowledge, you want to pass it on.
WS: More generally, what do you expect of American food culture in the coming years?
PS: Because everything has become more expensive, what we will call “poor food” will be revisited. Because people don’t want to spend so much for a steak, they will look at other products that will make dining still affordable and pleasant. And that’s I think where the chef becomes a big instrument, because they have to be creative; I think this will make them a better chef. Italian food is blessed to have so much of everything without touching the meat. You can do so many things with rice, with pasta, with veggies and so on.
WS: How are your philosophies reflected in your attitudes toward wine now?
PS: I love to discover a $10 bottle of wine, a $15 bottle of wine, rather than the usual $70, $80 bottle of wine. Everybody likes to drink wine, so it’s very important to have values. The more you do your homework—the more you taste wine by the glass, or by the quartino, or as a wine pairing—the more you realize that you can have great wines for daily consumption, and you can have better wines for a special occasion. I think as long as we live, wine is never going to take second place to cocktails, because, you know, we eat. And when we eat, we cannot have a martini; we have a glass of wine.