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40 Years and 40 Bites: A Look Back at Valentino's Anniversary Dinner

Piero Selvaggio, Celestino Drago, Nico Chessa, and Steve SamsonPhoto: Tatiana Arbogast

"I can't begin to tell you what I've been through for this dinner," Valentino generalissimo Piero Selvaggio said through a smile, sometime approaching midnight last night, as the 40th anniversary dinner at his Santa Monica restaurant drew to its dusk. Unruffled and ageless as ever, embracing and attending to each guest as if they were the only person in existence, the owner had 25 cooks crammed into Nico Chessa's kitchen, including the special forces of Celestino Drago and Sotto's Steve Samson, with Urth Cafe's Davide Giova back on pastry duty.

This allied legion oversaw a procession of 40 bites to every table, 20 representing Chessa's homeland of Sardinia, 20 for Selvaggio's Sicily. The celebration included unique pasta shapes of forged by the hands of 86-year-old Elvira Cavalle, plus courses dedicated to the hero of the night, the late Mauro Vicente, and bites of calf brain fritters, uni-topped bomba di riso, thin slabs of sliced bottarga, and magical fruits and fish crafted out of marzipan by Palermo's silent nuns of Mortorana.

Wolfgang Puck even popped-in for a doggie bag of desserts, including the same nougat by Caffe Sicilia, frutta Mortorana, and cannoli of which Selvaggio reflectively told Grub Street in a true "Rosebud" moment, "This is what I wanted most to have--what I grew up with."

Sacramento's ingredient encyclopedia Darrell Corti weaved lessons throughout the room, as 40 pours of wines curated by Do Bianchi's passionate Jeremy Parzen shone the light on Sardinian and Sicilian beauties, including a few bio-dynamic radicals like Cornelissen's Rosso Contadino 9, blended from natural grapes grown on Mt. Etna, eastern Sicily's active volcano.

Diners recounted Selvaggio and Valentino's rise from a humble 15-table red sauce Italian on Pico ("with bad wine and great food," as one dedicated regular put it) to today's scopic space and expansion to Las Vegas. Come take a look at the dishes and guest-chefs who made Valentino's anniversary a standout night among the many to remember in the last 40 years.

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