Restaurants

L.A. A-List Chef Nancy Silverton Gets Serious About Pork

The La Brea Bakery founder, who lost it all to Madoff, expands her Mozza empire with a salumeria.
Nancy Silverton
Daniel Hennessey

This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Aside from her mentor Wolfgang Puck, Nancy Silverton is arguably the industry's most idolized L.A. chef. Her Hancock Park restaurant complex Mozza, whose Pizzeria and Osteria branches have been absurdly tough places to get reservations since they opened in 2007 and 2008, respectively, have become two of the biggest A-list bastions in town, with everyone from Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal to Dave Grohl and Katy Perry lured in for wild boar ragu, butterscotch budino and her now-much-knocked-off squash blossom and burrata pizza.

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It's the kind of place where Ryan Seacrest says hello to Michelle Obama and where George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg meet for a catch-up, with the occasional paparazzi crew to document it. Eating there, pronounces Kathy Griffin, who visited nonstop while working on her memoir, is "Lindsay Lohan court-date mandatory."

Plenty of others find it mandatory, too. "When I heard she was going to be doing Mozza with Mario [Batali], I grabbed Nancy's leg and wouldn't let her go until she'd let me invest," says Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, who's also put money into such spots as Bouchon and Providence. Adds Henry Winkler, an investor in her previous restaurant, Campanile: "What Picasso did with paint, Nancy does with dough. Notice that you go there and almost every time, she's behind the counter, with cornmeal on her cheek." This is partly work ethic, partly diffidence to glad-handing. "I'm not active in terms of going around the dining room," she says. "I'm a little shy."

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Now the stylish Silverton (she favors Marni) -- who got her start in 1979 at Michael McCarty's California cuisine incubator, Michael's, in Santa Monica before being hired as Spago's opening pastry chef in 1982 -- is doing the empire-building thing, if not with the splashy bravado of Puck. Along with Batali (who describes her cooking as possessing "the confidence of an Italian grandmother and the touch of Yo-Yo Ma"), she's platformed Mozza to Newport Beach, Calif., and opened an osteria and pizzeria at the 2,500-room Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore. Next up is San Diego, and, she divulges to THR, a planned spot in JFK's international terminal.

But first, along with putting out a steady stream of cookbooks (her latest, The Mozza Cookbook, sold a solid run of roughly 45,000 copies), she has expanded in L.A. with a Mozza spinoff. Opened Feb. 4, the 30-seat Chi Spacca -- pronounced kee-SPOCK-uh, meaning "the cleaver" -- focuses on salumi made exclusively in-house.

The latest entrant is yet another act for a Valley-born culinary trailblazer, now 58, who transformed the city's baseline for bread in 1989 with La Brea Bakery, promptly earning her a James Beard Award for best pastry chef (the Oscars of the food world) and accolades from no less than Julia Child, who once described her creme fraiche custard brioche tart as "the best dessert I've ever eaten." It adjoined the recently shuttered Campanile, which she opened with her then-husband and fellow chef Mark Peel, in a building originally erected by Charlie Chaplin. (She is now in a relationship with crime journalist Michael Krikorian.)

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Silverton, whose mother wrote for General Hospital, sold La Brea Bakery for $6 million in 2001, then lost it all to Bernie Madoff. ("I was silly," she said at the time. "I will never not diversify.")

Batali initially came to her with an offer to take over the baking program at his acclaimed New York restaurant Del Posto. Silverton, who has three kids, suggested they partner in L.A. instead. "He had bought into that whole stereotype of L.A. where there are not serious eaters and they go to bed at 9 o'clock," she says. Eventually she won him over with a pitch based entirely around an exploration of mozzarella, inspired by the Roman restaurant phenomenon Obika, which she'd come to know during her annual sojourns to Italy (she retains a summer home in Umbria).

"My plan was to do a little place, and it'd be just me behind the counter," says Silverton. "But, this being Mario, the scale grew." After passing on a space in the Sunset Tower hotel (its Deco lines didn't jibe with their Italian aesthetic), they ended up on the intersection of Melrose and Highland. Silverton sees one advantage to the location: less picky customers. "My friend Suzanne Goin notices a distinct difference between her clientele in Brentwood at Tavern and the way they eat at Lucques or A.O.C. There are a lot more dietary restrictions [on the Westside], and I don't mean allergies. I just mean preferences."

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Before launching Chi Spacca, she delved into pork with the same intensity and curiosity she had had with bread and pizza. ("You could see her perfecting it," says Rosenthal of Mozza. "She was hand-slicing, investigating the whole structure of each pie that came out of the oven!") Her childhood friend Margaret Weitzman, wife of top entertainment attorney Howard, experienced Silverton's research process while traveling in Italy with her. "It was day after day of lunch three hours away -- a porchetta truck, a salumi place, a butcher. She's like a scientist. She wants to know everything. Then she can reinterpret it and make it her own."

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What's on the Menu at Silverton's New Chi Spacca?

The Genesis of Silverton's new Chi Spacca (6610 Melrose Ave.; 323-297-1133; chispacca.com), located next door to Osteria Mozza, began a couple of years ago when one of Silverton's proteges, Chad Colby, became obsessed with curing his own salumi. "What I've experienced with bread, mozzarella, pizza -- that passion -- he's doing now with this," she says. But to open a restaurant dedicated to salumi required getting L.A. County's health department to authorize the area's first-ever, in-house dry-cure program. "We follow a hazard-analysis plan originally developed by NASA to guard against spoiled food in space," says Colby, who gained citywide foodie fame in May 2011 after winning the inaugural local edition of the prestigious pork-preparing Cochon 555 contest, in which five chefs each make five meal courses utilizing a single heritage-breed hog, from hoof to mouth. Now Colby, who's worked under Silverton for a decade, is offering everything from whisked pork fat to a rare form of breaded salami found only in rural Puglia. For those who don't find swine quite so divine, there are options like lamb neck stracotto and beef and bone marrow pie, as well as stuffed squash blossoms and olive oil rosemary cake.

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