Florence is known for its Renaissance-era marvels, yet it wasn’t the brick-domed cathedral that stole Zach Pollack’s heart when studying there as a Brown University architecture student. Instead, he was taken by the history of the city’s cuisine.
The parallels between design and cooking are rich, says the Los Angeles chef/owner of Alimento in Silver Lake and Sotto in Santa Monica. “Of all the fine arts, architecture is the only one founded on a deeply pragmatic necessity to provide shelter. You can have fun with it, mimicking old traditions and defining new ones, but like food, it has a functional purpose,” he explains.
But appeal of Pollack’s smart, satisfying dishes extends well beyond the utilitarian. “Frankly, I don’t think I’m creative enough to put something on canvas that is inspiring to others, but I think I can inspire by what I cook,” he says.
Diners would agree. Pollack first made a mark on the L.A. restaurant scene in 2011 when he partnered with chef Steve Samson to crank out blistering Neapolitan pies and Southern Italian rustic fare at the much-lauded Sotto. Last year, he followed up that success with Alimento, an intimate Italian bistro serving inventive creations—tortellini en brodo “al contrario” (pasta filled with broth á la soup dumplings)—and challenging restaurant norms by adding an optional gratuity line for back-of-house employees.
Sotto is a tribute to eating in Italy and my respect for Italian traditions. Alimento is not a reaction against that, but it grounds me in L.A. and my Jewish heritage.
“Sotto is a tribute to eating in Italy and my respect for Italian traditions. Alimento is not a reaction against that, but it grounds me in L.A. and my Jewish heritage—like the baccalà, which is representative of a bagel with lox and cream cheese, and the yellowtail collar, which is like a smoked fish with capers and dill that bring it back to a very Jewish deli palate,” he says.
Pollack’s Italy-meets-California approach to cooking is a distillation of his nearly two years working in Italian kitchens, as well as refined L.A. hot spots Grace and Sona under the tutelage of chefs Neal Fraser and David Myers. But prior to these professional triumphs he had little exposure to good food.
“I was a pescatarian from 10 to 18 and my mom perpetuated this myth that canned tuna was wild caught just so I would get some protein in,” he reflects. “I have no fucking idea what I was thinking, but the first thing I ever felt compelled to cook was a linguine with smoked salmon, asparagus, and lemon cream. That sounds so dated now. I really wish I had a photo or could try to recreate it. It was fucking awful.”
How quickly things change. From a a spoonful of consolatory Florentian ribollita, to smoldering suckling pig in Sardegna, here are 10 of the Italian dishes that ignited the soulful vision in the young, hyper-focused Pollack.
Ribollita at Trattoria Mario, Florence
I was an undergrad studying in Florence and it was my first time in Italy. I left a bunch of important school documents on the train and went to the station to try and find them, but they were gone and I was shit out of luck. I remembered Trattoria Mario was nearby so I walked there in the rain for lunch. It was only 11:30am, so they looked at me like I was crazy. I knew little to no Italian, and when I came back I ended up sitting with this nice old man who wore a lot of gold. The menu changes every day and he helped me decide my meal. I had had Italian food in America, but I was lucky that the ribollita was my first taste of Italy. It’s neither quite porridge nor soup and it was like nothing else I had ever tried before, that first bite equal parts ribollita and olive oil. All the ingredients cooked so long and they played the perfect little parts in an orchestra [of flavors]. (Photo: Flickr/Amelia Crook)
Anolini in Brodo at Ristorante Ambasciata, Quistello
I had been in Italy looking at culinary schools when I read an article about Mario Batali taking his chefs and a reporter on a tour of his favorite eateries in Emilia-Romagna. The pinnacle of those meals was at Ambasicata, and I knew I had to make a special trek there. The restaurant in itself is this glorious ode to Baroque excess with Oriental rugs, crystal chandeliers, and antique books piled high in every corner. It’s as much about the ceremony as it is the food. After chatting with the chef he offered me a job. I forgot about culinary school all together, and that was the beginning of my tenure working in Italian kitchens. I hadn’t been exposed to anything beyond traditional Italian food at that time and I put their anolini in brodo on a pedestal. The texture and size of the noodle, the clarity of this really rich broth, and the little china cups it was served in really blew me away. Carla was this giddy, crazy Italian woman who washed dishes and chopped herbs and garlic. She was sort of the captain of the tortellini making. A few of us would go upstairs and she would laugh at the way we rolled the dough. It was an important experience for me to have and ultimately became the inspiration for one of my own dishes (see ‘Tortellini’ below). (Photo: Original Italy)
Lobster Risotto at Sona, Los Angeles
I came back to L.A. to work at Sona and started on the hot-appetizer station, which was responsible for the restaurant’s best-selling item: the lobster risotto. I had just come back from Italy, a place where the pace and mindset of diners is to take their time. Not only do they not mind waiting for their food—they prefer it so they can relax, unlike the American diner. They had different agendas. This dish was also very much made at odds with my preconception of how it should have been made based on my training. I thought to myself, why are we making this with chicken stock instead of lobster when we have all these lobster shells? I had been taught to use what you have on hand. I was young and I wasn’t well versed in brigade systems and the way a kitchen needs to be run, so one night we’re in the middle of service and I have made a lobster stock I haven’t told anyone about. I put out a few risottos and I’m asked why they are pink. The lobster stock went down the drain and I quickly learned my lesson. My Italian training and the reality of an American kitchen came face to face and I never made such an egregious menu change again. (Photo: Yelp/Sarah C.)
Margherita at Pizzeria da Michele, Naples
Up until this point, a pizza I had in Florence was the best of my life and I wanted to recreate it. I did a bunch of testing and made a ton of horrible pizzas as a result. I read about da Michele and took it upon myself to go to Naples and get proper Neapolitan pizza. I always thought the pies would have to cook for at least 60 seconds to not be raw in the middle, but as I watched them make the pizza at da Michele, I timed it at 35 seconds. It was pliable when I ate it. I tore it apart with the littlest twist of fingers. It was proof that pizza could, in fact, be cooked for as little as 35 seconds if every step prior—fermentation, balling, stretching—had been executed perfectly. Knowing this could be done liberated me. (Photo: Cloudinary)
Buckwheat Spaetzle with Game Ragu at Pretzhof, Alto Adige
When I initially went to Italy I liked a lot of the things I ate. But the more I ate around, the more discerning I became. I ate a meal on the edge of Lake Como that was so horrible it was scary. ‘What if it’s not that this is bad, but I have changed?’, I thought. A couple of days later I settled into a bowl of the buckwheat spaetzle and all those fears were wiped away. It was such an incredible dish and reminded me why I love Italy so much. It was a pivotal moment because I realized that the food of far northern Italy was as good as the food from anywhere in the country. It was just unrepresented. (Photo: Chef Bikeski)
Culatello at Antica Corte Pallavicina, Polesine Parmense
It was a simple plate of culatello accompanied by a tour of the place where it is made. On the wall hangs culatello made for every high-ranking chef in the world, from Alain Ducasse to Massimo Bottura to René Redzepi. What I love so much about that place is that it’s a strong argument against globalization. Even when you can traverse the globe in less than 24 hours and so much is imported and exported, there are still things that cannot be had anywhere else in the world, and I appreciate that uniqueness. Some things just can’t be mimicked, and that is special. (Photo: Italian Food Shop)
Porcetto at Sa Mandra, Sardegna
This agriturismo is famous for its whole-roasted suckling pig. They raise the pig, slaughter it, and then roast it in an outdoor fireplace. It’s served in this big hall of a restaurant that’s a ruckus in the sense that there are many families here for lunch, with kids running around large tables. I was the only one at a table digging into this plate of porcetto on a wooden board that I later found out the family carved from trees grown on the property. It was life-changing. Between the crunch of the skin, the fat, and the moistness of the meat, it’s possibly the best single item of food I’ve ever eaten and it’s only two ingredients: pork and salt. It makes a strong case for restraint, and for leaving certain things to the experts. The way they angled the coals and twisted the hogs…there’s no one who can build a fucking fire and a cook a suckling pig like these guys. (Photo: Sotto Restaurant)
Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich at Osteria Francescana, Modena
Until I had eaten here I could say I had a lot of great meals, but this was probably the best of my life. The whole idea of an Italian restaurant achieving three Michelin stars is almost an oxymoron. It’s difficult to serve food that has that level of technique but retains its Italian-ness. Every dish here could make it onto this list, but I suppose the one I want to include is the Memory of a Mortadella Sandwich because it’s so sublimely delicious. The bread and the mousse and the scattering of pistachio crumbs all make a lot of sense on the plate, and coming together they are all infinitely better than any piece of mortadella. There are two ingredients in that mousse, water and mortadella, and it’s a revelation of simplicity. (Photo: Trip Advisor)
Homage to Caiazzo at Sotto
The calzone put Sotto on the map and gave me a lot of attention—arguably more than I would have liked. Asking me to pick a favorite pizza is like choosing a favorite child, especially when one is as historical and perfectly balanced as the margherita. But I have to go with the calzone because it’s based on a dish I had in Caiazzo, outside of Naples, stuffed with Gaeta olives, escarole, capers, and a little bit of anchovy. In this case, there is also burrata. Putting in the escarole raw creates a pressure cooker effect and changes everything. It makes the dish one of my favorites on the menu at Sotto—and of all time. (Photo: Try Caviar)
Tortellini in Brodo “al contrario” at Alimento
For me this dish is where I branched out from my super-traditional views of Italian food and dedication to Italian regionalism to make it more personal. Having grown up in L.A. I am familiar with xiaolongbao. Tortellini is one dish that involves pasta and broth, and soup dumplings are another, so let’s employ the technique of one with the history and flavors of the other and do something innovative yet traditional, fun but technical. It’s one of the things Alimento is most acclaimed for. At least 25 percent of people order that dish. (Photo: Facebook/Alimento)