F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza (Los Angeles)
Education: Los Angeles Culinary Institute (now closed)
L.A.-native Matt Molina’s break came in 1999, when he became a brunch cook at Campanile under the bread genius Nancy Silverton. There, Molina forged an important bond with Silverton, who tapped him to help develop recipes for her cookbook A Twist of the Wrist. She later approached him to open Pizzeria Mozza as executive chef, with partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich in 2006, followed by Osteria in 2007. Since then Molina has earned a James Beard Award (Best Chef Pacific, 2012), and co-authored The Mozza Cookbook with Silverton. Here, he talks about manicotti, his cereal obsession and dream restaurants in Italy.
What dish are you most famous for?
Fresh ricotta egg ravioli with brown butter and sage. It’s just one ravioli on the plate; you split it open and the yolk spills out. Although this city is filled with tons of ethnic restaurants that use very complex ingredients, L.A. diners really love simplicity.
What’s a dish that tells your story as a chef?
Grilled beef tagliata with arugula. So much of what we serve at Mozza is inspired by what Nancy and I eat when we travel. In Italy, we’d go visit different towns during the day, and then instead of coming home and slaving over the stove, we’d get really good meat at one of our favorite butchers, grill that up and then make a simple salad with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Who is your food mentor?
That’s easy: Nancy. She taught me to never settle, whether it was for a product, a dish I’m trying to create, or even my own work ethic.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Manicotti with tomato sauce, when I was 15 or 16. It required one or two more steps than opening up a can of vegetables, so I thought it was incredibly labor intensive.
What is one cooking technique that everyone should know?
How to make mayonnaise. So much can come from it. You can take that aioli and incorporate tuna and make the best tuna salad sandwich you’ve ever had. Or try adding olive tapenade and some lemon zest, and all of sudden you have the perfect sauce for a fried fillet of fish.
What’s the most important quality you need to be a great cook?
Perseverance, because you’re going to fail eventually. You’re going to burn something, or cut your finger, or host a party and accidentally drop something on the floor. Having the ability to overcome adversity is a really positive thing.
Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
Canned beans. They are always cooked perfectly and they are so versatile. At the restaurant we have a whole crew that can soak dried beans, but I’m not going to do that at home. If I want to cook for some people, I’ll sauté garlic and add the black beans to it with olive oil, tomatillo salsa, a lot of fresh cilantro and some lime juice and it’s amazing.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
The weight I gained in Italy. I spent three weeks with Nancy and one week with Mario and I gained 35 pounds. I took that back with me and I was grateful to have it, knowing where it came from. Mario made us eat everything because he said it wasn’t a vacation, it was business. He demanded that of us, and it was no joke. It’s taken a long time to work off, and that’s probably the biggest souvenir I will ever have.
What are two restaurants in Italy you dream of visiting?
Ristorante Ambasciata in Mantua is run by a pair of brothers that have a bed-and-breakfast on the premises. The floors are lined with really nice rugs and there are tons of books everywhere. Holy people from the Vatican will helicopter in just to eat lunch there and then go back. It’s that kind of place.
Another spot is La Buca, which is in Cesenatico on the Adriatic. That place has the best seafood I’ve ever had. It’s so fresh and the variety surpasses any experience that I’ve had in any restaurant in Europe or Asia. I get really happy when I go there.
If you were going to take Mario Batali out to eat, where would you bring him?
La Cevicheria in L.A. has the best fish taco I’ve ever had in my entire life. They do an especially good job of balancing acidity and spice. All of the fish is really great there, and it doesn’t have a liquor license so you can bring your own beer or wine.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
My copy of Mario’s first cookbook, Simple Italian Food: Recipes from My Two Villages, has completely fallen apart. Like it’s so off its binding it’s not even funny. I should probably just go out and buy another one. Or maybe at this point he should probably just send me one. You know, because we’re partners.
What’s your go-to cocktail?
An Aperol spritz is super-refreshing. The ingredients are so simple, all you need is ice, Aperol, Prosecco and a slice of orange.
What’s your current food obsession?
Cereal. It’s light, with great texture. Special K is my favorite, followed by Honey Bunches of Oats. Cinnamon cereals are delicious too. That Cinnamon Toast Crunch thing? Oh, my God, that’s ridiculous.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I can play the drums. I used to be in a band until I was 24, but one night I burned my hand cooking and I couldn’t play. I took it as a sign that I should put the music down for a little bit and get more serious about cooking.