I dream of pizza every day. Passionately. Deeply. Admittedly impurely. The impulses have become so frequent that I’ve come to accept them as part of daily life. I trace these episodes to my first encounters with proper cornicione, bufala and tart San Marzano tomatoes at Ristorante Da Michele in Naples, the apparent shrine to (Queen) Regina Margherita. Having tasted perfection, finding stateside pies that elicit similar enchantment seemed impossible. Until one fateful evening, when a dimly-lit subterranean cave on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles proved me wrong.
The first glimpse of a pizza at Sotto – beautifully blistered dough framing the hyper-saturated Italian flag of tomato, mozzarella and basil – indicated that this may be one like no other. The first bite was ethereal, wickedly surpassing expectations. My attention immediately focused on the oven, at which a pizzaiolo deftly performed what seemed like culinary ballet. He appeared far too young to be creating such deliciously profound food. I knew I would have to investigate.
My many subsequent visits revealed that the pizzaiolo in question was Chef Zach Pollack, and pizza duty was merely a fraction of his involvement at Sotto. There, along with Chef/Partner Steve Samson, he presided over a stunning ode to Southern Italian cuisine. Their entire pantry limited to ingredients found in the toe of the geographic “boot”: Pecorino in lieu of Parmesan, unapologetic use of anchovies for salting and seasoning, olive oil instead of butter, finished dishes flecked with Calabrian chilies and absolutely no balsamic vinegar in sight. By narrowing the scope of Italian food, they gave access to a whole swatch of flavors that had otherwise been relegated to obscurity.
My curiosity and bottomless appetite led to many spirited conversations with Zach, and over time, a friendship blossomed. I was finding my footing in culinary storytelling and Zach was my insight into the mind of a chef. When he shared with me his plans to open his own restaurant and travel to Northern Italy to reinvigorate his inspiration, instinct had me asking: “Can I come?” and “Can I bring a camera?” He quickly agreed, likely thinking that I’d balk at the thought of driving six hours for lunch before turning around and driving another six for dinner. He was wrong. What might have seemed delusional to some, to me made perfect sense.
We arrived at Linate Airport in Milan. Zach was already antsy; “We’ve got a big drive ahead of us and I don’t want to be late for dinner.” And so began a week-long, thousand-mile road trip that had us meandering along the picturesque Alps, weaving in and out of Switzerland, cozying up to the Slovenian border, and ultimately finding parts of Italy so Germanic that the Italian language was not even uttered.
Once again, everything I thought I knew about Italy was summarily upended – Culatello paled Prosciutto, Parmesan now ceded to Puzzone (a cheese that brings such a delectable funk that its literal English translation is “the stinker”), and a single bite of canederli, a swollen gnocchi stuffed with fresh ingredients, made the entire trip worthwhile.
In our days spent ravaging menus and wine cellars everywhere from Trento to Bolzano, my fascination lay heavily on tracing just how these sensory discoveries would impact Zach and manifest themselves on his plates in Los Angeles. Watching him taste so methodically, so studiously, so reverently assured me that his creativity was undoubtedly well-catalyzed. He was clearly absorbing the kind of visceral experience that cannot be gleaned from any cookbook.
After enduring the psychological and financial horrors of opening a restaurant in Los Angeles, Chef Zach finally opened his doors. Nestled in the Silver Lake neighborhood, Alimento stands as an homage to an extraordinary (and under-represented) part of Italy, and also as a supremely talented chef’s very personal expression of self. Alimento translates to “nourishment”, though in a broader sense it is meant to encompass the nourishment of the senses, of the soul. It’s the exact essence of what Zach was hoping to accomplish: rustically elegant Italian comfort food in a neighborhood environment that is warm, casual, friendly, easy.
Since its debut a scant nine months ago, the accolades have avalanched. Mr. Jonathan Gold (Los Angeles Times), Ms. Besha Rodell (LA Weekly) and Mr. Patric Kuh (Los Angeles Magazine) love it; GQ placed Alimento on its national list of 25 Outstanding Restaurants of 2015 (number nine, to be precise), and the James Beard Foundation shortlisted Zach as one of the country’s Rising Stars. Equally interesting is the attention Alimento has generated for its avant-garde sociological experiments; charging a fee for water (the proceeds of which are shared with the Silver Lake Reservoir Conservancy) and adding a gratuity line specifically for kitchen and dishwashing staff. This is not the work of an anarchistic restaurateur, rather one attempting to use his kitchen and dining room admirably, to infuse new humanity into the restaurant industry.
When biting into Alimento’s version of beet-soaked canederli or spooning a brodo-filled tortellini, I can’t help but allow my imagination to drift to the source. Tasting the way in which Chef Zach has interpreted and modernized the canon of Italian cuisine has been fascinating, if not absurdly delicious. Until the next time I have the privilege of logging thousands of miles on Alpine terrain, I rest knowing that a mere zipcode away, there is a version of that other world in the formidable hands of a uniquely gifted chef.
1710 Silver Lake Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026