Piero Selvaggio is a prime example of the famous American dream. With his family, he left his native city of Modica in Sicily's Ragusa province at the age of 18 and went to the United States in the sixties, settling first in New York and then in Los Angeles. The California metropolis seemed the best adapted to his sunny personality. He worked his way up through the ranks from waiter to maitre and in 1972 he opened Valentino, his historic restaurant that quickly established a reputation as the best Italian restaurant in the United States.
His success was due in great part to an Italian staff with Angelo Auriana in the kitchen. Auriana is adept at getting the most out of Italian products in a light cuisine in the Mediterranean style. Selvaggio pays close attention to the needs of his customers and his wine list is a gem with more than 2,000 labels, including many bottles that are rare, collectors' items. In his career, Selvaggio has had to deal with fire and flood. Yet, while he has had to start again from zero, he always returns to a level of excellence. He created a dish for Frank Sinatra and played tennis with Dustin Hoffman. He is now the owner of two other establishments, Posto in the Los Angeles area and Valentino Las Vegas in the Venetian Hotel in Nevada.
There is no point in dodging the fact that at the Leon d'Oro, Selvaggio was the star among stars. He is a great conversationalist and he required no urging to supply his impressions on a theme that is of particular interest to him at the end of the evening. "For me, wine is not just an accompaniment for food, a product customers willingly consume and for which the restaurateur is well compensated," he said. "Perhaps I regarded it in that way when I was starting up. Today, it is no longer like that. Thirty years ago, Italian cuisine was in bad shape and so was the wine. The efforts of many people in all sectors contributed to the transformation of the wine sector. I'm thinking of Pino Khail, who 25 years ago was bringing to America producers who were not known there."
Selvaggio also mentioned the "cloud" of the methanol scandal in 1986 ("it was the restaurateurs who maintained the dignity of Italian wine worldwide”). Once it had passed, the boom began. There was also a real earthquake, which struck Los Angeles and his restaurant in 1994. “I still remember the fax from Lucio Caputo [president of the Italian Wine & Food Institute in New York], who in Khail's name informed me that he had asked the producers to give me a hand in rebuilding the restaurant and cellar,” he said. “You know your friends when you need help. All this has made me love my friend wine even more. In reading a label, I see the face of a friend, because wine is much more than what you drink.”