From the outside looking in, Valentino in Santa Monica may seem like just another Italian restaurant – but its rich history and renowned cuisine are sure to obliterate that initial first impression.
On the contrary, Valentino actually paved the way for countless Italian restaurants to come, as owner and founder Piero Selvaggio transformed the image of Italian food in America.
What initially started out almost 42 years ago as a casual trattoria slowly evolved into a fine dining establishment.
The Valentino staff, however, has mastered the art of balancing the unpretentious, warm, and friendly ambiance that may be characteristic of the original trattoria as well as the sophistication and elegance of a top-tier restaurant.
It would be an understatement to say that the quality of the food, drink, decor, and service far surpass that of any regular eatery.
Selvaggio initially opened Valentino in 1972 at the ripe age of 25 in Santa Monica, at the same location on Pico Boulevard that the restaurant still stands today.
Having in mind the mission to take Valentino above and beyond in terms of quality food and drink, Sicily-born Selvaggio traveled back to his motherland to learn more extensively about his native cuisine.
Upon his return, his newfound knowledge, culinary skills, and diligent work ethic ultimately reshaped the image of Italian cuisine in the States and particularly on the West Coast.
Widely sold and regularly utilized on Italian restaurant menus today, buffalo mozzarella, burrata cheese, truffles, porcini mushrooms, carpaccio (raw meat), and even calamari were not considered popular before Selvaggio started to effectively prepare and include these ingredients into his meals.
Selvaggio also incorporates the unique Verrigni “gold die” pasta into his dishes, which is imported from Abruzzo, Italy, and has a smoother, richer, yellower color when cooked, and provides a more intense wheat taste and intensely raw, al dente look.
“Back then, people thought truffles were chocolates,” Selvaggio said. “Calamari was known to be a yucky dish, and nobody had the slightest idea of how to work with burrata. Now, every market carries these things, and every one of these dishes are popular.”
Selvaggio and his team of course create the meals themselves and “discuss a great deal” amongst each other, in order to come up with new products that leak creativity and novelty.
He listed grilled octopus and mozzarella as components of a couple of the restaurant’s many specialties.
Selvaggio described the cuisine at Valentino as “regional Italian food revisited,” as he and his team of chefs take on a contemporary version of his native cuisine.
Another noteworthy menu item is the quadrifoglio, which may be an ideal option for those looking to grab a quick, affordable bite to eat.
Served only at the bar, il quadrifoglio features four small dishes priced at $25, which allows the guest a versatile culinary experience.
From fried buffalo mozzarella, to potato gnocchi, to prosciutto and cantaloupe, il quadrifoglio offers several of Italy’s most classic tastes in a single order. The four components of the quadrifoglio change on a daily basis, so check Valentino’s website for more details.
The wine selection at Valentino unveils another realm of the restaurant culture in itself. As an essential pairing to Italian cuisine, it is no wonder that Valentino accentuates the importance of a well-matched wine and food pair and boasts an extensive wine collection, including thousands of bottles of various sizes, types, and eras.
“Having great wines was a big weapon for us,” Selvaggio said. “It became a big, big part of our fame. Picking wines is like a science and an art, to be able to match all the subtleties of taste with food.”
Selvaggio also recognizes the value of consistency.
“You have to be remembered for the last meal, not for the glory of the past,” Selvaggio said.
His humility and willingness to continue working diligently is telling of his perspectives, both on how to maintain a successful restaurant and provide a top-notch culinary experience for his valued customers.
Valentino is located at 3115 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica.
For more information, call 310.829.4313 or visit valentinosantamonica.com.