A FOOD CENTRIC CULTURE
Until recently, Italian food in the United States usually meant the same thing: pounded veal cutlets, breaded and deep fried, slathered in some red sauce with a chuck of thick semi-melted cheese on top, spaghetti overcooked, bathed of its starches in frosty water, reheated and then apathetically topped with a ladle of the same red sauce that added color to the cutlets. Colossal, bready meatballs, fragrant with dried spices, oversized slices of limp pizza with raw chunks of garlic and clumps of canned tomato sauce underneath a heap of a greasy cheese-like substance, and stale, dry loafs of store bought focaccie. While there may have been a time and place for these American-styled Italian influenced foods, it is not, as many have come to understand, really “Italian.”
Contrary to common belief, this Mediterranean cuisine is astonishingly popular for its honest, lucid and sharp flavors that are able to stand alone when paired with fresh and local ingredients. For anyone who has ever traveled to this boot-shaped country and experienced its euphoric aromas and straightforward classic crafts including: meats cured in regions with the most mesmerizing Microbial Terroir (bacteria), translucent ravioli stuffed with beef cheeks and dressed with butter and 20-year-old vinaigrette, grilled Acciughe (anchovies) drizzled with olive oil and salt, pizza margherita’s with San Marzano tomatoes and Mozzarella di Bufala, prepared in accordance to the Neapolitan law, hand rolled trofie coated with fresh Liguria basil muddled into pesto, the slightly acidic red wines from Piedmont and the explosive flavors of salty and oily focaccia of Genoa; there could be no confusion that this is what you should be looking for when exploring your neighborhood Italian restaurants.
While Los Angeles was home to its own “French Town” in the early 20th century” (for a short period of time) its fine dining landscape has been primarily dominated by Italian cuisine, unlike our east coast compatriots who’s most extravagant restaurants tend(ed) to be French. The Italian hot spots of the 30’s and 40’s such as Lucca, Perino’s, Rex Il Ristorante and Chianti offered dreamy and romantic atmospheres that the Hollywood elite gobbled up, in addition to their truthful Mediterranean fare.
Today, you can pretty much go to any part of our City and find a decent Italian restaurant that offers classics and contemporary takes on dishes from all different regions, whether it’s fine-dining like Valentino’s in Santa Monica, Drago Centro Downtown and A-1 Cucina Italiana in Beverly Hills, to simple and causal spots like Sotto in West L.A. and Speranza in Silverlake. There are now even three osterie on Melrose within a two mile radius and first rate gelaterie all over the metropolis. In addition to that, there are even a few Italian bakeries that offer everything from Cannoli to Ciabatta- as well as focaccia. However, to get these oily, salty treats (focaccia), whether you are heading toDolce Forno Bakery in Culver City, Italian Bakery in Eagle Rock or Panini Di Ambra in Hollywood, you either have to call and place an order in advance or get there early on a Saturday morning and fight off an unforgiving crowd. And while these focaccie are better than anything in the bread aisle at your local Ralph’s, they are not top tier- at best, subpar.
At the other end of the spectrum, local respected chefs are now serving fresh focaccia. Suzanne Goin of A.O.C serves fresh focaccia on Thursday nights and Nancy Silverton, whose foccacia can be found at both Osteria Mozza and La Brea Bakery are definitely noteworthy, yet are not drool or wrestle worthy.
In an effort to find out who really does the best, purest focaccia in town, I recently consulted with the Los Angeles Times Food Critic, Jonathan Gold, and without hesitation he said, “Valentino, definitely.” And while his opinion is difficult to repudiate and as a result that focaccia is not guaranteed to be on the menu when you dine at any of these venerable restaurants- I can say with full conviction, that the best focaccia in the City, one that within seconds of your first bite will take you back to the intoxicating beauty of Genoa, one that will reassure you that your search for this honest, rewarding treat in Los Angeles is over; are those that are carefully handcrafted by Marco Cappetta and are available to us all through his artisanal baking project: Focaccia Doria.
It seems strange that these simple, rustic flatbreads are still difficult to come by, given that the City has the fifth largest Italian community in the United States……..What Italian community you might ask?
FROM ONE MEDITERANEAN CLIMATE TO THE NEXT according to Mariann Gatto
New York, New Jersey and Chicago are what most Americans think of when referring to our Italian heritage- not Los Angeles. It may surprise you to learn that the origin of present day Los Angeles owes quite a great deal of it to our Italian settlers. Moreover, these Italian migrants came to reside in this area nearly a hundred years before those who came to America by way of Ellis Island.
Given the degree to which Italian-Americans have achieved social acceptance and upward sovereignty, during the 19th an 20th centuries, Italians were confined to the nation’s immigrant underclass; often faced with considerable prejudice and hostility and during the 1800’s, Italians were the second most common target of lynching’s in the United States. Which is why so many Italians found peace and settled into the area near today’s Olvera Street (El Pueblo) twenty three years before California attained statehood. The area in and around Olvera Street was the heart of Los Angeles’s unofficial Little Italy. The Italians that settled in Los Angeles found success mainly due to the fact that they had cultural similarities with the local Mexican population and did not face the discrimination that characterized their experience elsewhere in the country and as a result often learned Spanish before learning English.
The first Italian settler in Los Angeles was a native of Sardinia and arrived four years after the founding of Los Angeles in 1827. The majority of the early Italian settlers arrived at El Pueblo passing through South and Central America and tended to be mostly Northern Italian; during a time when Los Angeles averaged one murder per day and was considered one of the wildest towns west of the Rockies. With completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the City’s population grew dramatically to a total of 50,000 by 1890.
Between 1876-1914, fourteen million people left Italy, due to political and economic inequalities, a malaria outbreak and continuous natural disasters; four of those fourteen million chose the United States to settle in.
Familiar with southern California’s Mediterranean climate, many Italian migrants became involved in agriculture, namely viticulture- so much so that in 1869, Los Angeles was the wine capital of California, producing approximately 5 million gallons of wine annually. The thriving wineries of Italian winemakers were responsible for Olvera Street to originally be named Calle de La Vignes (Vineyard Street) or otherwise known as Wine Street, until it was renamed in 1877 in honor of Augustin Olvera-Los Angeles’s first judge. At the turn of the 19th Century, Italians owned one-third of the buildings that comprised the historical street, even though today, it is best known for its Mexican heritage.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a population of nearly 2,000 Italian immigrants in Los Angeles and although the population was not as homogeneous as Little Italy’s elsewhere across the nation, it functioned as an extension of their homeland, characterized by the local Italian based newspaper L’Eco della Colonia, the Italian Hall, Italian wineries, deli’s, markets and eateries such as Cafe Italiana, Little Joes, the Italian Kitchen and The Eastside Market (still operating today on Alpine Street in Echo Park).
As the civic center moved south, The Pueblo rapidly turned into a slum and most residents of the area were recent immigrants; Italians continued to settle in the area, as well as in the foothills of Elysian Park, including present day Chinatown (Sonoratown), Chavez Ravine and Lincoln Heights and in 1910 the area was noticeably Italian.
The passage of prohibition in 1920 forced most of the wineries to close, although there was a handful that were able to survive- including Santo Cambianca, which was established in 1917, survived by manufacturing grape juice and is today known as San Antonio Winery. In addition to the economic ruin, prohibition was catalytic for the increasing volumes of violence, corruption and organized crime in the community; potentially responsible for the Occidentalism portrayed in early Hollywood films based on the Italian Mafia.
During WWII, the Italian community spent little time and effort to maintain and preserve their heritage and ensure it received adequate representation in the neighborhoods in which they first settled and called home. Sadly, in 1942, a little more than 3,000 Italians were sent to Internment camps for varying lengths of time during the War. All the while, in the enclave where Sicilians once lived in the periphery of the Los Angeles Central Market was bulldozed and replaced with industrial warehouses; the redevelopment of the City’s Old Chinatown led to the creation of the New Chinatown and inevitably forced Italians to disperse from their neighborhoods and resettle throughout the City in such places as: Burbank, Eagle Rock, Echo Park, Encino, Highland Park, Los Feliz and San Marino. Though, the San Pedro Italian community retained its ethnic feel, comprising the only enclave that could be accurately referred to as “Little Italy.”
After WWII, record numbers of second and third generation Italian-Americans came to southern California and settled throughout the City’s scattered landscape. Though, with little physical remains and due to assimilation into American culture, now the region is home to a community of upwards of 600,000 Italian-Americans living as ghosts in the greater Los Angeles area.
And fortunately today, the Genovese-raised Marco Cappetta is going back to his roots and turning out some the most delicious and rustic focaccie in all of Los Angeles, by doing so he is raising awareness of our City’s significant yet widely unknown Italian heritage.
This Ligurian olive-oil flat bread is of very ancient origin, dating back to the bakestone days. It is hearth bread, usually flung into the oven just after the fire has been raked out, when the temperature is still too high to bake a larger load without burning the crust; and is possibly connected with offerings made by the Romans to the gods. In Liguria it plays a similar role to that of pizza in the south, eaten as a snack or with cheese or antipasti.
Few of us however, can say we know focaccia in its purest and finest form. The focaccia or fugassa as it is said in Genoa, is leavened flat bread made with a lot of olive oil, dressed with more olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt- this at least in its basic form. When focaccia was first baked in the wood-fire ovens of Genoa, olive oil was cheap and abundant, due to the widespread cultivation of olive trees of the native Taggiasca strain and was positively oozing from barrels stored around the ports. There wasn’t room to grow wheat on the steep and terraced slopes behind the city, so flour was imported from Sicily, who at the time was often referred to as Italy’s bread basket.
Today, focaccia is available in most other regions of Italy, though these concoctions mostly result in poor imitations and are often referred to as “Pizza Bianca, many of which have inventive ranges of toppings including: olives, garlic, sweet onion, peppers, tomatoes, meats and even sweet versions with egg, sugar, lemon and orange peel. Though, focaccia is still very much a staple of Liguria, and some areas of Tuscany and Apulia. So much so that on weekend’s people from Milano and Torino still flock to the Ligurian coast to enjoy the sunny beaches and eat focaccie.
In Genoa, bakeries put out large pans of piping-hot focaccie in the morning that sell out very quickly, as Genovese folks grab a slice on their way to work. Smaller strips are also served in cafes for breakfast and are often the perfect companion to a foamy and sweet cappuccino. Focaccia is also eaten for lunch with cured meats and cheeses. Any focaccia leftovers end up in the bread basket for dinner and are usually eaten the same day it’s baked.
According to the Focaccia Law developed by Slow Food, “a focaccia should be soft yet crunchy on the top, should smell intensely of olive oil and bread, and should be of a golden hazelnut color with ‘white eyes’” the exact description of Marco Cappetta’s exceptional focaccie.
THE GENOVESE ARTISAN
Unsurprisingly, Marco Cappetta is a proud Genovese man. What is surprising is that he is not a professional baker by trade, but an award-winning cinematographer and a member of the prestigious Italian Society of Cinematographers, AIC.
Marco came to the United Stated in November 1990 to study film and work in the movie business. After working his way up in the camera department he shot his first 35mm feature film in 1996 as a cinematographer and has been shooting movies ever since.
Focaccia, for a Genovese, is almost part of their DNA. Marco can vividly recall memories of following his grandfather to the forno (bakery) at an age where he could barely walk and watch as his grandfather purchase little focaccia strips; through these experiences Marco developed a focaccia connection so strong that it became a snack that he enjoyed all the way through college. Of course his favorite, the Ligurian focaccia: plain, kneaded with extra-virgin olive oil and topped with sea-salt is truly a miracle food for its intense flavor and simplicity.
Immediately upon moving to Los Angeles, Marco began to miss Ligurian cuisine, especially focaccia. As it proved difficult to find the riveting flavors of his home country and in an attempt to preserve his cultural heritage, Marco started cooking and baking some of the dishes that he loved so much growing up.
Besides his short stint in culinary school in Milan, Marco is primarily a self-taught cook/baker learning much of his skill from his father who was not only an exceptional cook, but also a true gourmand. But his decisive advantage of knowing exactly how certain dishes should taste, enables him to gage his culinary efforts with a very precise yardstick. Focaccia was one of the dishes he obsessed about, so he kept baking and experimenting until he was happy with the results.
Marco admits that in the beginning, the whole baking thing was a completely selfish act, aimed at satisfying his lustful taste-buds. While his focaccie recipes and formula’s may seem simple, the totality of the baking process is quite convoluted. However, he is proud to share that he typically uses a “poolish” (pre-ferment aged approximately for 18/24 hours), a mother-dough that he has been nursing for several years, a specific hydration ratio, a blend of all-purpose and high-gluten flours, sometimes mixed with a bit of cornmeal, and nothing but high-quality, natural ingredients, like Italian extra-virgin olive oil, white wine, sea salt and fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses. Always striving to keep the dominant ingredients to a minimum, ideally two, aiming for the perfect harmony of flavors, Marco likes to pair an element of sweetness with a salty one, like sweet onion with Pecorino, sausage with roasted peppers or fresh sage with pancetta. “The right combination is when you can still appreciate each individual ingredient, yet the combination of the flavors creates something unique and wonderful.”
A couple of years ago, while shooting a movie on location across the street from Bulgarini Gelato, the famed Italian gelateria in Altadena, Marco decided to pay a visit for a scoop of gelato and some espresso. Upon entering, owner Leo Bulgarini, a man known for his impeccable taste-buds, was in the middle of a local television interview. Bulgarini caught on to Marco’s accent when making his order and started talking to him in Italian. This intrigued the TV producers and Marco was immediately asked to do an on-camera appearance to talk about Bulgarini’s gelato. This event was the beginning of a friendly rapport with Bulgarini who lured Marco back to his shop for many more scoops of gelato. During one visit, Marco brought with him, a freshly-baked focaccia with rosemary, sweet onion and Pecorino Romano. When Bulgarini bit in the focaccia, his jaw dropped and he became quiet as he kept eating in silence. After a few minutes he told Marco that his focaccia was by far the best he had ever eaten, and that there was no equal in Los Angeles. He went on to say that Marco could easily sell his focaccia and that he would actually be flattered to feature it in his Gelateria. Touched by Bulgarini’s enthusiasm, Marco accepted his offer and started baking focaccia for Gelateria Bulgarini, which was an instant hit.
After a few months, due to Marco’s busy work schedule and with the birth of his twin boys, he had to put his baking passion on hold. Nevertheless, the idea of an artisanal baking business continued to linger in his mind.
Today, with the desire to stay close to his family, Marco has begun flirting with the idea of reviving his focaccia project. He decided to give it a shot and has set out to create Focaccia Doria, named after the famous Genovese admiral Andrea Doria. Although the project is currently just getting started, its concept is straightforward and simple- to keep all operations strictly artisanal in order to maintain an excellent product quality, for its focaccie and other Genovese specialties. To make them available to the public in limited quantities through food fairs, pop-ups, private catering and direct orders through his website. In time, Focaccia Doria plans to eventually feature their products at selected bars and coffee shops in the greater Los Angeles area.
Having experienced Marco’s focaccie on numerous occasions, his love, passion and enthusiasm for all things Ligurian, it brings me happiness to know that he will undoubtedly become an integral part of Los Angeles’s fascinating food scene. All of his simple focaccie, plain or with herbs not only blend harmoniously with quality Italian cured meats and cheeses, but also with slightly chilled wines; while the more robust focaccie, those with pancetta, fresh sage, sausage and roasted peppers can be a meal all by themselves. Theses flatbreads accompanied with green salads, grilled vegetables or cannellini bean salads will make for a meal that is not only truly Ligurian, but one that will justly satisfy those who are craving the romanticization of a pure Italian meal.