Ah, the good old days. “Jack Lemmon would play piano at the piano bar in Martoni’s, my uncle’s Italian restaurant in the Trinidad Hotel in Palm Springs,” recalls Tony Riccio, owner and chef of La Bella Cucina in Palm Desert. “It was the late ’70s. I was 12 and had started working in the kitchen at Martoni’s. It was around the time when good authentic Italian food had become a tradition in Palm Springs.”
Though the era certainly didn’t launch the popularity of red sauce joints in and around Palm Springs, it set the tone for what was to come: a destination where a blink-and-you’re-back-in-Rome bowl of spaghetti and meatballs and a flavorful fork-tender veal chop were always close.
It didn’t hurt that Frank Sinatra was a business partner of Riccio’s uncle. (Riccio’s dad, a NYPD lieutenant, looked after Sinatra’s mother.) “They [the Rat Pack and many celebrities] came to Martoni’s and then followed when my uncle closed and started Riccio’s in Palm Springs in ’78,” Riccio continues. “Same quality, more formal atmosphere. That lasted until ’04.” Riccio took the reigns and opened up La Bella Cucina.
The chef/owner is now among those vaunted throughout the area as one who approaches Italian food with old-world style. It is a rare desert breed.
La Spiga chef Vince Cultraro.
La Spiga’s branzino con finocchio features an array of herbs baked inside the whole fish.
The Big Guns
It requires no exercise to find a restaurant, café, or bistro that serves a decent pizza or pasta in and around the desert. But the number of places that take the circuitous route to perfection — to procure imported and locally sourced ingredients, make from-scratch sauces and exacting preparations — are fewer these days. Riccio thinks there’s a good reason. “During the ’60s, ’70s, and into the ’80s, we called it the ‘silver spoon’ era. You had chefs who were the product of immigrant parents who came over in the ’40s and ’50s with their grandmothers’ recipes, old family cooking style, and a distinct Italian point of view.” Like Riccio’s father-in-law. “Strictly old school. He scoffed at making sauce that would be used for canned pasta.”
Eventually, Riccio postulates, chain restaurants began cutting into the silver spoon set. “The guys who stood proudly behind authentic ingredients, preparation, and presentation were outdone by corporations.” The time when one could revel in a Palm Springs rife with tasty chops, sauce-slurping pastas, and housemade tiramisu came to an end when corporate recipes watered down the classics.
But those who believed in taste never went away. The traditional restaurants were fewer and far between, but you could still find them. The places where sauce was an art, where you were made to feel like family, and a glass of Chianti on the house coddled those whose appetites for the amore in Italian cuisine were as restless as the swaying palms at the Indian Canyons.
Sinatra found them. Although he had a personal chef, he sometimes blazed the town for a taste of the patriarchs’ back-home New York cooking. Johnny Costa’s named a steak he came to love after him. It remains on the menu, Steak Sinatra. And Le Donne Cucina executive chef Guillermo Cruz, who has been behind the oven for more than 20 years at the Palm Desert establishment, remembers the day he felt vindicated as a chef.
“Sinatra came in one time and he told me he thought the food was terrific. That’s one of the best things that’s happened in my career.”
Castelli’s veal chop — which soaks 24 hours in olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper before being slow-cooked and topped with a Dijon mustard – white wine sauce — and the osso bucco.
Castelli’s chef Victor Martin, surrounded by all the important italian motif.
Starting All Over All Over Again
Scions of the silver spoon generation and newcomers, some with roots in Italy, took what had become something of a drought and sowed, watered, nurtured, and coaxed it into a new day. A day when you can revel in a primi and secondi that made their heart stop.
Sowing is what chef Vince Cultraro did when he opened La Spiga in Palm Desert. After almost 40 years as a chef, he has stayed true to his Sicilian roots, which go deep into the earth where as a boy he learned the value of the pillars of Italian cooking: fresh and simple. For Cultraro, fresh begins with the La Spiga garden, a fragrant perimeter to alfresco dining and special events. There Cultraro presides over produce as far as the mind can wander: all manners of fruits — apricots, grapes, figs, loquats — hearty veggies such as eggplant and asparagus and numerous herbs.
His menu highlights the treasures. The branzino con finocchio shows off an array of herbs baked inside the whole fish. “We slice the fish from the spine, de-bone and stuff it with fresh herbs and lemon before we bake it on a bed of fennel,” Cultraro says. He serves the fish whole, head intact. The dish took off with the clientele, as did his other seafood creations (read: Lenny’s Pasta with whole lobster tail, shrimp, and calamari). All fish is sourced sustainably and flown in fresh daily. (Meat at La Spiga is sourced with equal consciousness.)
Le Donna Cucina executive chef Guillermo Cruz.
He cooks even the simplest pasta dishes with the same love and passion as his mother and earliest mentors from the kitchens where he worked in L.A.
To survey Cultraro’s desire to remain as true to his roots as possible is to appreciate the simplicity that stirs the old soul within him and his old-world lineage. “Nothing complicated.” A pasta as simple as pappardelle tossed with preserved truffle oil, truffle peelings, and Asagio cheese triumphs in Cultraro’s skilled and loving hands.
Riccio riffs off of that same simplicity at La Bella Cucina, where few yet high-quality ingredients render the housemade sauces and dressings — and the table accompaniment of olive oil infused with fresh rosemary, chili pepper, anise seed, and black pepper seed. “From scratch, everything,” Riccio says. “Like my uncle and my wife’s uncle, who I learned from in his restaurant in the south of Italy.” In short it goes like this: “Be good to the house, and the house will be good to you.” That it has. They flock for the delicious sauces that elevate his pastas and the fresh old-school salads but also the lamb sha
Tony and wife Elena Riccio.
Olive oil infused with fresh rosemary, chili pepper, anise seed, and black pepper seed.
Slow Rise to the Top
Chef Victor Martin of Castelli’s in Palm Desert employs similar technique when it comes to the signature veal chop — a must on the menu at any serious Italian establishment. A quick refresh: A veal chop originates from young milk-fed dairy cow calves. Romans were known to often indulge before the dish spread to other parts of Europe. At Castelli’s it begins with a 24-hour soak in olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper brine. “We slow-cook it to ensure the tenderness, then sauce it with a Dijon mustard–white wine sauce.”
The osso bucco, Martin says, also benefits from four to six hours of cooking. A pan sear in a light tomato paste-based sauce readies it for the plate. “At that point,” he adds, “you don’t need a knife. Your fork slides right through it.” He knew he had the dish down when “real Italian grandmas came by and said it was the best thing they’d ever had.”
If there’s a lesson to be learned here it is that you never know who you’ll run into in the desert. The alchemy of legend, history, and regeneration watched over by a commanding sun draws from all corners of the world — including more than a few from Italian cuisine’s mother country. Cruz says his inspiration came from his mother, a passionate old world–style cook, and his formative years spent in the kitchens of L.A.’s revered Italian restaurants.
“What I learned and strive for daily is, of course, the freshest and most localized as possible, but food that is healthy, cooked with passion the way my mom and the chefs I worked with cooked. That’s the Italian way.” Even Cruz’s seemingly simplistic pasta dishes reflect that approach. “We make our own fresh pasta. Semolina flour and water. That’s it. Simple.”
The menu at Il Corso in Palm Desert (with a second location set to open adjacent to the Kimpton Rowan hotel in downtown Palm Springs) puts an exclamation point on the statement. Chef Mario Marfia’s menu, itself a hymn to classical Italian, proves the Italians were onto something when they eschewed ingredient-heavy dishes. His handmade gnocci alla Sorrentina shines with a light touch of fresh tomato sauce, oregano, and mozzarella. The pollo alla Romano translates as a chicken scallopini with mozzarella, prosciutto, and sage. Nothing more, and nothing more needed. And completely divine.
There it is, the foundation of authentic Italian cooking. Simplistic. One might say ritualistic in the sense that over many a millennia the center has never moved. A few ingredients, a light touch, and a big heart. It is a comfort to know that on those days when the sun burns hot, the breeze is uncooperative, and the desert breeds a sense of malcontent, a starry sky and a little bit of amore is never far away in our corner of the world. The familiar refrain resonates once again:
When the stars make you drool just like a pasta fazool, that’s amore!
La Bella Cucina calamari salad and antipasto plate.