Jonathan Gold Reveals Favorite Italian Food, and Much More
An exclusive interview with Jonathan Gold: Italian specialties, the best spots in town, and what's new in the LA's food scene.
Here I am, in the middle of it all, Grand Central Market, tons of people walking about, milling around, eating their lunch, b’fast, dinner, snacks…It is a wonderful place, and even though it brought a world of eating and drinking options to Downtown Los Angeles, it is my first time. I was a GCM virgin, so to speak. With almost 40 vendors, 28 of which serving hot and cold dishes to eat there or take to go, it can be a bit overwhelming to decide what to eat. Nahhh…difficult to decide only if you are American. I am Italian, I eat everything. So, problem solved.
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Yeah, but that is another story. Now that I am here, let me tell you why I am here. Anxious and excited at the same time, not like I would be on a first date (I miss first dates, even though they were both the best & worst of my women-seeking-experience in LA) but… I’ve got to tell you, I’ve got sweaty palms.
It all started when I was @The Taste by LA Times, several weeks ago. While sampling food and drinks, I accidentally bumped into someone whom I have been wanting to talk to for a long time, way before I decided to write for Foodiamo, way before I saw his wonderful documentary (City of Gold, check out the trailer below), way before he became one of LA’s most iconic figures. And way before his column – and his 101 Best Restaurants list – became the food-bible (taco trucks, Korean street food, strip-mall burger and thai & pho joints), the list to have in your iPhone, just like 30 years ago, the Thomas Guide of LA was the ever-so-precious map to their homes.
I am talking about Mr. Food Critic, Mr. Pulitzer Price winner (he won it when he was working for LA Weekly and bear in mind that no other food critic had ever won it before him), Mr. L.A. know-it-all-from-a-social-point-of-view, Mr. Jonathan Gold.
You see, after I saw his documentary, I realized that beside food expert, Jonathan should wear different hats, his business card should read more than one qualification, above all, man of the people, and cultural observer as well as culinary expert.
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That said, and after few emails exchanged, here I am …few minutes from meeting Jonathan Gold. Here he comes, shoulder-length light-red hair, a flesh-colored mustache (who has a flesh colored baffi… who??), and freckles that reach up to the top of his head. My point being: he is widely recognizable, while he walks gingerly among GCM’s aisles shaking hands and smiling with everyone who stops him. Yep, I was right, man of the people, and yes, he probably ate GCM as well. So what.
We meet, we get a cortado (I know you know what it is, but for me, being Italian, it is normal to get a shot of water with my espresso), we look at each other, we sit down… and pretty soon, after a bit of chitchat, we end up talking about food. Let’s say my physique is well rounded as well, so he probably guessed that I like to eat! We started talking about Italian food, or the lack of it in his documentary…and around town.
Talking Italian food in LA with Jonathan Gold
Roberto: City of Gold, why is it that in your documentary there is no mentioning of Italian food?
Jonathan Gold: I know people disagree with me on this, but I think a lot of the beauty of Italian cooking is that… you go to trattoria and their cooking is the same… the same twelve dishes for fifty years, a hundred years. And they’re perfect, they’re great. No change necessary. And you go from region to region and you try the different foods and… Italian cuisine is so beautiful… and sometimes when people try to innovate, it becomes something less desirable. Also, remember that there’s a California style for Italian food, every place has radicchio salad with balsamic vinegar, everybody has insalata caprese, penne arrabbiata…
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R: Yeah, you are right. There’s a misconception in American culture that Italians only eat these 12 dishes… People don’t do what you do, going around town and discovering every little shitty shop-trattoria-bar-ristorante that makes up the LA-Italian cuisine network. Another thing you cover really well in your documentary is this migrant kitchen trend, you know the mom-and-pop store, the Indian woman, the guy who made the Ethiopian dishes… This is what made LA what it is. A city of 12 million people, 175 countries, so many different races, a city where if you are italian, you wish you could find… trippa for example [i.e. tripe]. A city with so many Italian restaurant…that from an Italian point of view, if you know what you eat, you know your restaurant by certain dishes. U get me?
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JG: Yes I do. And for trippa, you’d go to Gino Angelini [Angelini Osteria]. He has beautiful tripe.
R: Or cassouela, by Ori Menashe @Bestia. I loved it. It is a typical winter dish popular in Northern Italy, mostly in Lombardy. You make it when it’s snowing, when it’s cold, you make it using braised pork and different kind of cabbages.
JG: They haven’t had that on the menu in years, but it was one of my favorite things when they opened because in a way, it dared to be plain. And one of the things about Californian-Italian cooking is that a lot of it comes from Wolfgang Puck, who’s a wonderful chef, but when he was at the first Spago, he would celebrate BIG FLAVOURS. He would do things like putting almost four ounces of tomato paste into a half liter of stock, plus rosemary, sage, and the big herbs and it would have so much punch because there’d be so much flavor in every bite. But you can also scale back, and I think one of the things I admire about Ori is that he steps back from it a little.
R: He turns it down, he allows you to taste the components.
JG: Yeah. That being said, it’s definitely one of the best half-dozen Italian places in LA. Vincenti in Brentwood does some really good stuff too.
R: When you feel like Italian food, what is the dish that you crave and where do you go?
JG: It’s different things at different places. I love what Angelo Auriana is doing at Officine Brera and The Factory Kitchen. He was with Valentino forever but he has his own two big places now and he makes a beautiful Focaccia di Recco [perfectly pronounced], original, very crisp, very delicious. And he makes farinata, the famous chickpea pancake. His farinata has this slightly sour taste, but just right. It is beautifully crisp, sort of soft on the inside. In fact, it’s just chickpea flour, or “ceci”, water, a little oil and that’s it.
On polenta, memories, and smuggling guanciale
R: Or polenta, yellow & white polenta from Venice, you eat it with whatever you want – deer, rabbit, mushrooms, grilled pork chops etc. But as Italians know, if you keep it in the fridge for a week, it becomes hard, then you grill it and you can eat it for breakfast, with milk…pancetta, guanciale….
JG: When it’s done well, polenta is one of the most perfect dishes. It sounds dumb, but one of my favorite dishes in Italy is the polenta with mountain herbs at Cibrèo in Florence. It’s just a bowl of polenta with melted butter and herbs, but every bite is a little different and the fragrance of the herbs is overpowering, intoxicating. And you bite and bite and bite and you see the bottom of the bowl, of this big bowl that you never thought you could finish.
“If smuggling meats had the penalty of smuggling drugs, I’d be in jail for life.”
R: We are talking bites of food, flavours, the pleasure of something that brings you back to your childhood, your grandparents, your loved ones, you roots and heritage…. Like when I help some Italians here in LA on vacation, they ask me what they can do for me. I always ask them to smuggle in some sopressata, guanciale, or salamino di cinghiale (wild boar salame). Something that gives me pleasure. You know, simple food and a glass of wine.
JG: If smuggling meats had the penalty of smuggling drugs, I’d be in jail for life. Especially guanciale from Norcia. It has a presence so unlike anything you can get here. And finally it’s finished and…
R: You hope it gets stuck in your teeth. So you can taste it again and again! The most delicious insaccato [cured meat] I’ve ever had was salame made of donkey.
JG: There’s this place in Ferrara that specializes in donkey. Only donkey. They have this “salame al sugo” and they boil the salame for hours and hours, they slice it open, and it comes out like a sauce. It’s probably a special kind because when you boil cotechino, that doesn’t happen. By the way, they sell a good cotechino right here in Belcampo, only around the holidays.
Jonathan Gold on putting food in context
R: Let’s talk about your job as a writer. The main thing for a writer is to create a bond with the reader, which forms the illusion that you know and tap into them. Tell me how you developed this… Is this because of the way you write, your love of food, is it because u love them so much that u want to tell them exactly how u feel?
JG: I try very hard not to talk down to my readers. I write in second person (which means I use the word you). The old copy chief at the Times said that I use the word “you” probably more than every other writer in the paper put together. And I try to bring the reader along on the journey with me, I don’t pretend to have knowledge that I don’t have, I don’t try to be the expert. I mean I probably am the expert in a lot of this.
I think the most interesting thing is acquiring the knowledge, and the fact of eating as opposed to the fact of describing food as if it’s a butterfly pinned to a cork board. It’s actually not that different from the way I used to write about music, it’s the same thing, it’s like abstract sensation and you’re trying to make them physically palpable, something you can feel, something in your hand. It’s hard to explain how you write. I don’t set out to do something, it’s just sort of what I do.
“Writing about food is not that different from the way I used to write about music… it’s an abstract sensation and you’re trying to make it physically palpable.”
But one of the important things for me is context. If I have something in front of me on a plate, I want to know why it’s in front of me. And one of the beauties of say… Rene Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen is that he can give you things that you’ve never before thought of eating and yet somehow when it’s on the plate in front of you, it makes sense. Like the last time I was there, there was a flan that was coated with this sweet-lemony paste of crushed ants. And you are wondering why am I eating ants? And of course, the reason is that he only uses food from the Nordic countries and there’s no lemon. So anything that will give him a lemony flavor is something that he prizes above everything else.
R: Speaking of insects, in the documentary you also mention fried grasshoppers. They are also used in cooking to give flavor, to give acidity, nuttiness, are they also used as a substitute for something?
JG: That was a restaurant in London that specializes in Oaxacan cuisine [a state in Southern Mexico]. The food from that region is probably the closest to pre-Columbian cuisine that you can find in North America. Grasshoppers were something that people ate. They may look revolting, but when you fry or toast them, they become crispy and have sort of a nutty flavor and smokiness that you CANNOT replicate any other way.
There’s a Thai restaurant in LA that I like, Night + Market. There’s one on the Sunset strip and one in Silver Lake. For a while, they did this beautiful fried chicken served with “nam prik,” which is like a dip flavored with water beetle. The owner stopped flavoring it with water beetle because basically it takes like 8 pounds of water beetle for 1 ounce of the essence, so it is very time-consuming. But it was good, the flavor was like a herb that you’d never tasted before. You wouldn’t have guess it was an insect. The whole world has different sensations that they can bring to your palate and it’d only make you happier if you explored some of them.
What’s next for Jonathan Gold?
R: You mentioned Noma, the idea of putting pine tree needles and algae and mixing them with balsamic and stuff like this. It was revolutionary at the time… But now it seems that in LA, everyone talks about comfort food… made by some Mama & Papa from the old country. They wouldn’t be recognized or glorified if it weren’t for you, so kudos to you. Let me ask you…what’s the trend, where are we going right now in the culinary field? There’s no money, yet everyone’s opening up a restaurant.
JG: I don’t know if it’s a mass thing, but there’s a trend towards fermentation. Chefs are really excited about that. I just went to the MAD conference in Copenhagen and everybody was talking about it. You go to Noma and there’s four sheds full of things fermenting at different temperatures. Here in LA you have Baroo, a Korean-American restaurant in Hollywood, or Shibumi, a brilliant new Japanese restaurant in Downtown. Lukshon in Culver City is a beatiful Asian restaurant, very controlled and very high on my list this year. They’re all dealing with ways of getting flavors through fermentation.
Los Angeles has a lot of really interesting chefs whose parents were immigrants and had restaurants. They grew up in those kitchens and they went out and went to cooking school and apprentice with famous European and New York chefs. Then, they came back here and used their training, knowledge, and technique to express the flavors they grew up on. And that food is so exciting. Some of the places to go: Taco Maria, Lukshon, Night + Market, Cassia in Santa Monica doing Vietnamese food. A lot of Mexican chefs too, like Ray Garcia at Broken Spanish and Eduardo Ruiz of Corazon y Miel. Salazar is another one.
Another trend I see is regional specialization. People don’t just open Italian restaurants, they might open a Tuscan restaurant only, or one inspired by all that the Piedmont region has to offer.
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R: Heritage, knowledge, research. What’s your favorite book? For research, like you said, the more you know, the more honest you are with people.
JG: I have a cookbook library of many thousands. Some are Calvin Trillin (American Fried is a beautiful book), Joseph Mitchell (not necessarily a food writer, but some of his best writing is about food, for example Up in the Old Hotel), M.F.K. Fisher, and A.J. Liebling. Angelo Pellegrini is one of the most beautiful writers about cooking from the garden. And Paul Bertolli, his books are fantastic. As someone who cooks and eats so much Italian food in the United States, it’s impossible not to think about Marcella Hazan. First you do it her way and then you see what other people are doing.
R: I read that before writing a review, you eat from the same restaurant 17 times. Who pays for the bill? How does a food critic work in a system where newspapers are running out of money? Also, how do you pick restaurants?
JG: The newspaper pays, always. I never take anything free, not even a bag of chips or a glass of wine. Occasionally, the newspaper won’t pay, so I’ll pay, but it always gets paid. Half the restaurants I pick are the ones with famous chefs, big budgets, well-known places. For the other half… I spend a lot of time in my truck driving around LA (we laugh, because we both knows what does that means….)
R: A question from our readers: what is your secret for a perfect amatriciana?
JG: The crucial ingredient is guanciale. You can make one with pancetta, you can try with American bacon, but if you have a good, well-cured, pungent guanciale, you’re more than half-way there.
R: You’re writing a book, can you tell us about that?
JG: Yeah, sure. It’s part memoir and part a book about Pico Boulevard. When I was right out of university, because I had nothing else to do, I decided to eat at every restaurant on Pico over consecutive days. I didn’t do the whole thing but enough of it. I wasn’t a writer yet, I was just doing it, and it’s become part of what people know about me. It’s fun to go back and revisit it.
R: Do you have a title?
JG: Breakfast on Pico.
At that point, he gets a call…”It’s the Zagat people, I am so late with them…” He gets up and leaves. I got to tell you, I totally enjoyed his low timbre of voice, his laughter, his demeanor, his suggestions, his knowledge and most of all the time he gave to me. He didn’t have to. So, GRAZIE MILLE, Jonathan Gold, to when we meet again… my house, my wine & my wife’s lasagna (I am not stupid, hers is da best).
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