I meet Chef Andrea Cavaliere at Cecconi’s, the Italian hot spot at the corner of Melrose and Robertson in Los Angeles, on a busy Friday afternoon. The sun shines through the tall hedge at the entrance, the terrace doors are open and the restaurant is winding down from lunch. Cavaliere stops at the table of two ladies and greets them in Italian as we walk to a table in the corner of the dining room. He later tells me they are food purveyors and sell good olive oil. As one might expect from an Italian chef, good quality olive oil is Cavaliere’s favorite ingredient and his menu at Cecconi’s reflects this.
Born in Turin, in northern Italy, Cavaliere started cooking at his family’s trattoria. After culinary school and various European restaurants, he moved to London in 1998 to work at Neal Street Restaurant with Chef Antonio Carluccio. It was there that Cavaliere was approached by entrepreneur Nick Jones, whose most celebrated hit is the Soho House brand: the hipper-than-hip, members-only boites in London, Bath, New York and now West Hollywood, with two more set to open in Miami and Berlin. Back in 2004, Jones bought the original Cecconi’s in London and was looking to transform it from a dowdy grande dame into a place to see and be seen. And, with Cavaliere, he did just that. Next, Cavaliere tackled the culinary programs for Soho House Shoreditch in 2007 and Soho House’s first American venture Soho House New York in 2008.
In 2009, they worked their magic again, this time in L.A., transforming onetime Industry favorite Morton’s, site of those fabled Vanity Fair Oscar parties, into a new Cecconi’s, an ultra-contemporary setting sporting cerulean blue leather chairs, black-and-white tiled floors and enormous glass jars filled with cherries to lend some color at the bar. Cavaliere’s menu balances Northern Italian comfort food with local healthy Californian fare. One bite of his margherita pizza and I am transported back to a tiny pizzeria off St Mark’s Square in Venice. On top of a thin and crisp wood-oven baked crust, the tomato sauce is sweet and fresh, the slightly salty buffalo mozzarella is perfectly melted, and basil leaves beautifully round out the flavor.
As the corporate chef for Soho House, Cavaliere has been busy helping with the opening of the West Hollywood addition, setting up Chef Matthew Amistead, who came from Babington House (a Soho House club, hotel and spa in the English countryside), with a support system of Los Angeles suppliers and staff. The 20,000-square-foot penthouse club at Sunset and Doheny has panoramic views of the city and is due to open March 8. But Cavaliere found time to sit down to talk about menus, food trucks, his late mother’s influence on his recipes and the taboo of eating cats, dogs and fluffy bunnies.
How is the menu for the new Soho House different from Cecconi’s?
It’s very different. Matt’s menu is not Italian like Cecconi’s. It’s a club menu with local influences. Californian and Italian cuisine are both based on the sun, the climate is similar, and they use local ingredients you can buy from markets — so there are some similarities.
Have you tried the food trucks?
Yes, I would like to have a business and do a truck. I have talked about this a lot with Marcus Barwell [the project manager who opened Cecconi’s and now the Soho House club] a long time ago. Before the craze we had this idea.
Maybe a pasta truck?
Yes or maybe a pizza truck with a wood oven? There is a pizza truck in Venice that the Truffle Brothers told me about. [They say] it does a very good pizza slice. I like the idea of this. A chef can cook anywhere. Pasta can be done on a truck, definitely, there is no reason why not.
What is the next thing in restaurants?
That’s what we are doing here. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I did a lot of research. There are many restaurants where there is a lot of attitude. I was also shocked by the prices some people were charging for average food. We try to do the best product for not too much money. A restaurant should be relaxed. We have a restaurant where you have good food, not too expensive, with a good scene and it’s open all day. (At lunch you can get the Prezzo Fissi menu — a choice of two courses for $15.)
How is breakfast going?
It’s good. I don’t know if it’s to do with the financial crisis, but I see more and more businesses having meetings in the morning. But maybe if you want to make deals it’s better to do it at dinner with the alcohol.
You serve cicchetti, Italian tapas, at Cecconi’s for your midnight menu.
Yes, we saw it on day one in Venice (Italy), when I went with Nick Jones to do research. We knew it would be perfect for Cecconi’s. It’s an excuse to have some food when you drink. It’s one bite — mini oven-baked meatballs, scallops, tuna tartare — finger food.
Who were your influences in cooking?
My mother, first and foremost. It’s her meatball recipe here. And then my aunt. We are from Turin-Piedmont, in northern Italy and my mother’s sister married a man from Puglia in southern Italy. She gave me my first ethnic experience. Piedmont is one of the best regions for food in Italy, and then there’s Tuscany. Puglia is amazing — I guess everywhere in Italy is good!
What is your signature dish?
Pappardelle with rabbit — my mother’s recipe. We would have it a lot in Italy. But it’s not on the menu at Cecconi’s.
Is America not ready for rabbit?
America, yes, but I don’t know if Beverly Hills is ready for rabbit. I did it at Cecconi’s in London. Maybe I shall try to do it.
When I am at Cecconi’s a week later, Cavaliere proudly presents his signature dish: Thick melt-in-your-mouth ribbons of pasta covered in a flavorsome meaty brown sauce with small delicate bites of white rabbit. “The rabbits came from a man in Sonoma,” he tells me. “They arrived with the skin on, so we had to take extra time to prepare them. I hope you like it. I’m putting it on the menu on Monday.” Pappardelle with rabbit also appears on the menu at the club.
Is there anything you would never eat?
Have you ever been served cat?
No. I tell you why I say that. I was talking to my father about food and memories recently, at my mother’s funeral, and there is a region in northern Italy called Venito, near Venice. There is a town there called Vicenza. They say that people from Vicenza eat cat. They keep the heads on the rabbit in the butcher to prove it’s not cat.
They really eat cats in Italy?
My father was telling me that during the war people ate cats because meat was scarce. Apparently, after the war my grandma used to cook cat once a year in remembrance of those tough times. My father tried it. It was a shock for me. I did not know this.
What did he say it tasted like?
So did you ever eat cat growing up?
No. I asked my father. Thank god. In the winter they would leave the cat for two weeks under the snow, to age it and lose the fur — like in Italy when you come from hunting you leave the birds to hang. Then my grandmother cooked it civet, with red wine and a lot of spices. In Italy now there is a big celebrity chef [Beppe Bigazzi] who worked for the TV channel RAI, like the BBC in England. He got sacked because during the program he made a suggestion to cook cat casserole.
It sounds like it is part of a tradition.
Yes, a tradition of desperation.
There can’t be much meat on a cat.
If you have nothing to eat, I don’t know why you wouldn’t eat a rabbit. Cat is not acceptable. I don’t like cats anyway. I have a dog.
But you would never eat your dog!
No. Come on!
Chef Andrea Cavaliere’s Pappardelle With Rabbit Ragu
If you don’t have a pasta maker, you can buy pappardelle from your grocery store or fresh from your local Italian deli.
- In a bowl (wooden if possible) make a volcano-like shape with the flour and create a well in the middle. Break eggs and herb mixture into the well.
- Beat eggs with fork to incorporate into flour. Do this until it becomes mixed and doughy and proceed to knead dough with your hands.
- Once smooth and beautiful, cover in plastic wrap and let rest in fridge for half an hour.
- Run dough through pasta roller to create a thick, 1-inch-wide pappardelle. Let rest with a bit of flour mixed in while preparing the ragu.
Rabbit Ragu Ingredients
- Dice the rabbit into ¼-inch cubes and dust with flour, salt and pepper.
- Sear in heavy bottomed pot until golden brown. Add veggies and tomato paste, and stir until all is golden brown and smells delicious.
- Once it caramelizes, add white wine. The white wine will quickly evaporate. Then add olives, fresh thyme, lemon zest, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts.
- Cook for 30-35 minutes over low heat, slowing adding stock (add a bit, stir, let evaporate, and repeat until stock is done). Let it rest.
- Cook pappardelle in boiling salted water, for a few minutes if fresh or according to package directions. Heat ragu and add pappardelle.
- Add two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and 2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan.
- Mix together to combine, and it will become creamy.
Lucy Lean is the editor of Edible Los Angeles. She has worked as a magazine writer and editor at Talk magazine in New York City, edited books about world cinema for the British Film Institute and appeared in the BBC’s “London Girl Lucy Lean Meeting Her Friends for Lunch.”
Cecconi’s is located at 8764 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, Calif. 90069. Phone: 310-432-2000. Website: cecconiswesthollywood.com.