The stars came out for Piero Selvaggio’s 40th at Valentino

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Above: When Piero Selvaggio finally sat down to dinner last night at my table, he couldn’t wait to dig into the schiacciata alla siciliana (front, center), one of the forty dishes his chefs and guest chefs created to celebrate his fortieth anniversary last night. “This is one of the dishes of my childhood,” he said.

What a thrill for me to be asked to speak last night at the fortieth anniversary celebration of Piero Selvaggio’s landmark restaurant Valentino in Los Angeles!

I first met Piero long before I ever dreamed of writing about Italian wine and food.

One of the top benefactors of the Italian department at U.C.L.A. was a close friend of Piero’s. When I was a graduate student there in the 1990s, I had the great fortune to dine in his restaurants thanks to his generosity to the department and his support of Italian cultural events.

Above: Piero is from Sicily and his executive chef Nicola Chessa is from Sardinia. The enogastronomic theme of the evening was wines and cuisine from their resepctive regions.

I’ve followed Piero’s career ever since. He’s one of the earliest pioneers of regional Italian cuisine in the U.S. and he was among the first to open a fine-dining establishment devoted exclusively to Italian cooking.

darrell corti

Above: Piero, left, with Darrell Corti, my friend and inspiration for my own career in the scholarship of Italian wine.

Of course, the other thrill was the chance to catch up and taste with the Darrell Corti, one of the great wine and food personalities of our generation.

Darrell was the event’s keynote speaker and it was great to watch as he and Piero, along with the many wine and food professionals in attendance, reminisced and reflected on how Americans’ perceptions and appreciation of Italian gastronomy has changed over the arc of their lives.

In my world, they are giants — generous of spirit and ever ready to share their trésor of knowledge with the curious and enthusiastic (like me).

Above: Woflgang Puck was just of the many LA food celebrities who stopped by to pay homage to Piero. He arrived late in the evening and Piero promptly presented him with a doggy bag.

Chef Steve Samson, co-owner of Sotto (where I curate the wine list), began working with Piero in the 1990s and he ultimately became the executive chef at the flagship Valentino before launching his own restaurant. (Steve and I met in 1987 on our junior year abroad in Italy and have remained close friends ever since; he’s a daddy now, too!)

Piero had asked him to prepare some of the dishes and he had asked me to speak about Natural wines from Sicily (Cornelissen) and Sardinia (Dettori).

Above: There was a lot of great wine poured last night but my top wine of the evening was the 2008 Etna by Passopisciaro. What a stunning wine!

At the end of the night, when it came time for hugs and goodbyes, I thanked Piero again for asking me to be part of such an extraordinary event. And I thanked him for his generosity. I couldn’t help but think to myself how Piero — one of just handful of Italian wine and food pioneers in our country — literally made my career possible.

For that, I can’t thank him enough.

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