The Good Life: Chef Mario Martinoli brings Roman cuisine back to the South Bay

“French cuisine is all about technique. Italian is about ingredients.” – Dolce Vita chef Mario Martinoli

 

Dolce Vita chef Mario Martinoli. Photo

Anybody who has shopped for a house knows the feeling when they find the right one – the one that will be a home rather than just a place to live. Celebrity chef Mario Martinoli must have had that feeling when he found a struggling restaurant the Redondo Riviera Village that was serving German and French food, despite having an Italian name.

“This place is called Dolce Vita, which means the good life. I lived the good life in Italy in the 1960s. My backyard was the Coliseum. It was minutes from my house. I would go there and play gladiator. This was before they locked it up and put gates all over the place. When I was 10 years old, my friends and I would run all over Rome and hop from café to café. That was the concept of la dolce vita – that sense of personal, political and economic freedom after dictatorship and war. It was this philosophy that benefited the arts, fashion and food.”

Dolce Vita is Mario’s return to a personal relationship with his customers after decades of talking about food on radio and TV, being a demonstration chef for gourmet products, and other twists and turns in a varied career. Though he was born in Los Angeles, Mario’s earliest memories are of Rome rather than Hollywood.

“My mother’s family owned a produce company that was 130 years old, and when I was a child she had to go maintain the family business. She packed up my brother and me and headed there while my father stayed to run his auto repair shop. In Italy I went with my uncle from farm to farm buying produce, meeting people in restaurants. I worked at the general markets with him, and I learned what a perfect pear was, what produce was all about.”

The family eventually reunited in Los Angeles and, like many teenagers, Mario became fascinated with cars. Since his father owned an auto shop, he had a perfect gateway to working on them, but his interest in food remained.

“I actually worked in both enterprises. I spent 20 years turning wrenches. In the mid ‘70s I had an automotive parts store next to my dad’s shop. I built a rolling oven with a grill on it, and we would make things right in the driveway. I started to hone my craft. These guys would pull up in their Porsches and Ferraris, and I’d cook for them. These were the early days of party planners and theme parties, and I started a business. We’d come to the house and decorate, I’d make the food.”

The day came when he had to decide which career to pursue. But first, he took the kind of trip every young adventurer dreams of.

“In 1983 I decided to make the changeover. My dad was getting on and the next generation had the choice of keeping the business or letting it go. We sold it. I sold everything I could get my hands on, and I went to see the world. I visited Asia, Europe, Africa, Central and South America, and I studied culture and cuisine the whole time. After I came back, I started a cooking school called Cooking For Friends. Teaching people to cook was almost a by-product. I was teaching people how to entertain. I rented an old house on Larchmont, and on Tuesday and Thursday night 14 people would come to my U-shaped table and we would slice, dice, cook, and eat until 2 a.m. I had everybody at my table – Hollywood elite, plumbers, you name it. Later I opened up Mario’s Cooking For Friends, an expanded version with an Italian market and deli, and that’s what I’m going to continue right here.”

Mario’s career wasn’t as straightforward as closing one restaurant and opening another. First he had to become an international celebrity.

“A guy named Vern Lanegrasse had a show called “The Hollywood Chef” on a tiny radio station in the Valley, and he invited me on his show. I made a deal. I said I’d come out every other week and talk about food and dining from a chef’s perspective. That was unique. Every other show on the topic was done from the viewpoint of a diner or a critic, someone who had never spent any time in a kitchen.”

That venture didn’t last long, but it awakened his interest in media. He closed his restaurant after successive stresses made being a restaurateur less fun. The aftermath of the Rodney King riots, the Northridge earthquake, and a flood in his kitchen all combined to make him reassess. He had just decided to get out of the business when fate intervened. An acquaintance called to ask him to open restaurants at the Sports Clubs in Santa Monica and New York. This was followed by a stint as spokesman and chef for Agnesi Pasta. He made TV appearances that took advantage of his fluency in Italian and French. But eventually he and his wife got tired of life on the road and returned to Los Angeles, where he resumed his career on the air.

“My wife and I did a show called ‘Cooking For Friends Radio’ on a little local station. Then KABC called up, and we went big time. We raised our son on-air. For three years he was in the studio with us every Saturday morning. Then we had another child and two kids in the studio were too much. We were then offered an opportunity at KFI, and just after that a fellow named Dennis Herzig offered me a show at KCAL channel 9. I sent back an email saying I wasn’t interested, and he sent one back just saying, ‘What?’ I sent one back saying, ‘Just kidding.’ I was there for about a year with a little show called ‘Cooking With Mario,’ but they really didn’t know what to do with me. One day I went into the general manager’s office and told them, I’m getting good at this, and I want to take this on the road. We made a deal, and created a show that was eventually named ‘The TV Diner.’ Smart & Final came along as a sponsor, and it just exploded. Everybody wanted a place on the show. Then I became Smart & Final’s spokesman for print, TV, and radio, and I stayed with that for a few years. I needed a rest, so I stopped, and that brings me to where I am today.”

What he is doing now is revamping Dolce Vita and recreating the flavors of his childhood, the tastes of Italy that he grew up with.

“Dolce Vita is bringing me back to my roots. This is the first time I’ve just been cooking for 25 years. I talked with my wife Amy and said, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Italy does not have a high cuisine. The higher you go, the more French it becomes. French cuisine is all about technique. Italian is about ingredients. I was never part of the New York Italian movement that moved away from those ideas. My mother and father came right from Rome. All the food in our family was distinctly Roman.”

Mario’s own children have learned his love of fine food, and will be helping at the restaurant.

“Marcello is 15 and goes to Peninsula High School. Isabella is 12 and attends St. John Fisher. They’re both huge fans of their father’s cooking. Marcelo is refinishing some of the furniture for me right now, and Isabella loves waiting the tables. They both enjoy eating. How could it be otherwise?”

Mario believes that the South Bay is the right place to lead a reassessment of Italian cooking.

“LA, the West Side, everybody’s chasing rainbows, looking for the top chef, the most innovative. I have done that and don’t need to do it again. I’m trying to raise the bar on Italian comfort food, make it at its traditional best. When I’m in Rome and someone asks me what is the best restaurant, I wait until dusk to answer. I point out at a building and say, ‘See that light in the kitchen up on the sixth floor? That’s the best restaurant in the city tonight – a place when someone is cooking the traditions for their family.’ It’s genuine and true, not contrived. That’s the standard I’m setting for everything I do.”

Dolce Vita is located at 1718 S Catalina Ave., Redondo Beach, in Riviera Village. (310) 844-7462. 

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