What does a dish have to be for you to serve it at one of your restaurants, and how would that differ just on the corner of Melrose & Highland, between restaurants?
That’s a great question. We don’t just change the menu or put on new dishes because we want to offer something new. There’s a whole lot of scrutiny that goes on behind that. The head chef, the executive chef of all things Mozza, whether it’s the Pizzeria, the Osteria, or [Chi] Spacca, is what I feel is an incredibly talented partner, Matt Molina. Together, he and I come up with the dishes, but we both are comfortable, secure enough, sensible enough, to know when something doesn’t make the cut. We have spurts of making change, but our menu doesn’t change nightly because no dish goes on the menu unless we’re both in love with it.
I work in the Osteria, where there’s a big mozzarella bar in the middle of the dining room, so I get to interact with a lot of the guests. Those that are in front of me at the mozzarella bar will say things like, “What should we order? What’s your favorite?” It’s like, “I don’t have a favorite. They’re all great.” I really believe that. I don’t think there’s one thing on our menu, in any of our restaurants, that don’t belong.
Tell me about the most recent collaboration that you and Matt had, and what the result was.
Matt and I independently both put up two different new dishes. One of them, he and I worked on together, which was a cedar-smoked salmon, which we don’t usually have at the restaurant, but we decided to put it on because it feels very summery. We’re doing it with a [French] butter, so it’s a butter that’s a little bit more French than Italian, but still delicious with salmon. It has gherkins and capers and rucola and tarragon, shallots, so it’s a very green butter that’s melting over it, and it’s very simple with Romano beans and mustard. The Romano beans are sort of blistered, so very simple but very summery and very delicious.
I put on a new salad at the mozzarella bar that also has summer beans. Mine are wax beans, and they’re tossed in an herb vinaigrette with black olives, Taggiasca olives, and potatoes and shavings of bottarga over it. Then it has a little crostini on the side, toasted bread that’s rubbed with garlic, with bagna cauda, so an anchovy bath over it, with a soft-cooked egg and these anchovies that I brought back from Cetara, which is a tiny little village on the Amalfi Coast that has the world’s best anchovies. It tastes like nothing else, so it has a really nice anchovy fillet over the egg. We’re calling that a summer bean Nicoise. The shavings of the bottarga kind of take the place of the tuna, but it has the olive and potato, and then you have your egg. It’s really nice.
Since Matt is so instrumental in what you’re doing over at Mozza, do you remember when you first hired him, what your first impressions were?
When I first hired Matt, he was maybe 19 years. This was back at Campanile. He was a very young cook, but I noticed him right away for his work ethic. He was focused, he was driven, and you could tell that he was somebody who had passion and, at a young age, the maturity to develop into a great cook. I watched him at Campanile, where he worked himself up from a line cook to the Chef de Cuisine. When I left Campanile to go to Mozza, he wanted to come with me, which was great, and he’s been really fantastic.
Who’s the last person you had a similar feeling about when you hired them?
Well, Dahlia [Narvaez], who’s our pastry chef at Mozza. She started at Campanile too. A guy named Jon Davis who I hired at Campanile. He won’t on to work in La Brea Bakery and he’s been working there for years, and he has some fancy, high title.
You know what? I don’t know if it’s right to say one of the most important parts of being a restaurant owner, but certainly a significant part, is to recognize talent and to nurture them. Owning a restaurant and cooking in a restaurant, it’s not a one-person job.
Who else in the restaurant industry do you look to for inspiration, guidance or advice?
So many. Mario [Batali]. He’s a huge inspiration to me, and it’s been a wonderful relationship. Alice Waters is the woman who’s always looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m doing the right thing. Wolfgang…Puck. I say Wolfgang because he doesn’t really need a last name, but Wolfgang has always been a huge, huge inspiration, as much for his talent as a cook, but also just his generosity.
What do you want people to think of when they hear your name?
I would like people to know how important it is to me to own a restaurant and to offer the offer the food that I’m so passionate about, because I think that dining, whether it’s in a home or a restaurant, is such an important part of daily life.