Viva l’Italia

Renowned for her pastas, breads and mozzarella bars, acclaimed California chef Nancy Silverton is being honored at this year’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival

WORDS Lee Brian Schrager
January / February 2019
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One of America’s foremost establishments for exceptional Italian cuisine, Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza is the flagship of her Los Angeles-based Mozza Restaurant Group, which also includes a steak house, Chi Spacca, and two Pizzeria Mozzas. Silverton is a revered pasta and bread artist, kneading the most perfectly balanced flavors alongside a new generation of talented chefs in her kitchen. Her mentorship and training is a coveted asset for young culinary professionals, and is part of the reason why she has been selected as this year’s Tribute Dinner honoree at the 2019 Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival in February. Known for the purity of her ingredient-driven dishes, Silverton has amassed an array of honors throughout her career—including a James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef Award in 2014—and authored nine cookbooks. Here, she chats with Celebrated Living about her most cherished accolade, the secret to keeping things fresh, the perfect grilled cheese and more.

 

You went to Le Cordon Bleu in London and trained later in Paris, and are now recognized as one of the maestros of bread and dough. Was baking always at the center of your interest in food?

No. My intro to baking was at the Cordon Bleu. However, it was the general cooking school, not baking in particular. In fact, the part of the program devoted to baking was where I felt the least confident. Baking was so precise and it was so easy to fail. When I decided to move back to Los Angeles—after working as a line cook at 464 Magnolia in Northern California—I wanted badly to work at Michael’s, the happening place then. The only opening was in pastry, so I took it, with the thought that I would work my way to savory. That, obviously, didn’t pan out as my passion for dessert was born in the very small pastry department of Michael’s in Santa Monica.

What attracted you to Italian cuisine?

Prior to opening [my first restaurant] Campanile in 1989, I rented a house with my family outside the Tuscan town of Lucca. We cooked and ate simply, using local ingredients, and that cemented my love for the flavors of not only Italy, but also the Mediterranean.

Who are some of the most influential mentors in your life?  

Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck. Wolf as a restaurateur, Alice as a philosopher, and both for their quest for the best ingredients. 

You’ve been anointed as the “godmother of grilled cheese sandwiches” by NBC’s Today. What’s the secret to the perfect grilled cheese?

Good bread and good cheese and the right ratio between them. I started doing grilled cheese sandwiches at Campanile as a way to increase business and liveliness at the bar. Grilled cheese sandwiches are coffee shop food, but I wanted my bar to have them. On top of it, customers could watch as I prepared them behind the counter. Walter Manzke, the chef/owner of République in the old Campanile space, recently asked me to do a grilled cheese night there as part of its anniversary.

Both Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza opened to immediate critical acclaim a little over a decade ago. Did that instantaneous success put any additional pressure on you?

No. I put all the pressure I need on myself. I don’t need any outside help.

You’ve said that the two most important things to try at Osteria Mozza are the homemade pastas and the offerings from the mozzarella bar with their accompaniments. Do you have any tips for creating a mozzarella bar at home?

Yes. Have some friends help you. Get the best stuff. Have fun. And, probably most importantly, don’t forget the red wine. And a driver.

You’ve collected an impressive array of accolades throughout your career—a Michelin star, multiple James Beard Foundation awards and nominations and a Food & Wine Best New Chef ranking, among many others. Is there any recognition in particular that you feel was most significant?

Yes, though it wasn’t an actual award, but rather a statement from a loyal customer, Dan Pirelli. He told me that more talented people had come up through my kitchens and opened good restaurants on their own than anyone else in town. That was an accolade I cherished.

With a number of successful concepts still flourishing and expanding, how do you keep things fresh and continue to evolve as a restaurateur?  

By listening to and encouraging my young staff. 

You come from a family of strong women. How did your childhood prepare you for working in and creating some of the most prestigious kitchens in America? 

Respect. My parents respected my sister and me.

What is the biggest difference for women working in your kitchen today versus what it was like for you when you first started your career?

I never noticed any resentment of women in the kitchen. I guess I was lucky. I’ve heard all the horror stories and I believe them 100 percent. But I didn’t have it any harder than the men.

You have a home in Umbria in Italy. How do you spend your time when you’re there?

The most wonderful days are spent in my little town doing very little. But on every trip of four or five weeks, I have about three parties at the house for anywhere from 10 to 40 people. I send various friends on missions to get foods—cheese, breads, vegetables, meats, wine—and I prepare it. [My boyfriend] Michael will usually be in the backyard barbecuing lamb shish kebab or sausages or both. There will be lots of wine and lots of laughs. On the do-nothing days we might have leftovers and go to the pool and listen to Johnny Cash or John Coltrane and I think how fortunate I am.

Lee Brian Schrager is the founder of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which will host an American Way panel on Feb. 22. sobewff.org

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