Chef Michelangelo Aliaga found a home for his fresh pasta in Torrance, California.
Torrance, a working-class city loaded with low-key sushi bars and ramen shops, isn't where you'd expect to find one of Southern California's more serious Italian restaurants.
But the location of Primo Italia, which makes more than 10 kinds of pasta from scratch every day, isn't even the most unlikely thing about it.
"We make fresh pasta here at Primo because it's how I grew up," chef Michelangelo Aliaga says. "It's how my grandma taught me, how she fed me when I was a kid."
But Aliaga didn't grow up eating his nonna's food in Italy. He was born and raised in Peru—the son of an Italian father and a Peruvian mother. Then, when Aliaga was 12, he moved to Spain, later going to culinary school in Barcelona before beginning to work in restaurants in Italy.
And now that he's in the L.A. area, where many Latinos are behind the scenes in the kitchen at Italian restaurants, he figures that he has the perfect heritage and experience to be part of the city's pasta renaissance.
"If you go to a Peruvian restaurant and try to find an Italian guy in the kitchen, you're not going to find one," Aliaga says and smiles. "But there are a lot of South American people working in Italian restaurants."
And while higher-profile new Italian restaurants with higher-profile locations (such as Felix in Venice and Rossoblu downtown) get more attention for their handmade pasta, Aliaga is making a name for himself from his perch in an inland part of L.A.'s South Bay.
He's a chef to keep an eye on in the future because he recognizes the glories of the past.
"We're going for the rustic, authentic cuisine at Primo," Aliaga says. "For me, rustic is going deep into the history of Italy. We're doing fresh pasta because that's what represents rustic cuisine."
Aliaga turned his Wayback machine up to 11 for his testaroli, a rare crepe-like pasta that dates back to the 1300s. He cooks the testaroli with freshly made pesto in a cast-iron skillet. It's a toothsome dish he first tried as a child in the highlands of Tuscany, at the home of his grandfather. Aliaga didn't like it at first. It didn't suit his young palate.
"The texture is not al dente like regular pasta," he says. "It's a little more soft."
But Aliaga grew to love testaroli, which he's been unable to find at other Italian restaurants.
"A lot of the restaurants don't even know what it is," he says. "I went deep in the history of testaroli and discovered a really old recipe and technique. I promised myself that when I had my own restaurant, I would serve that dish."
When Primo opened last year, Aliaga realized that it might take a while for testaroli to catch on in Torrance.
"We had a lot of reactions, people saying they don't like it," Aliaga says. "We trained our servers well to explain what it is. Now it's one of our most popular dishes. People come over and over again for the testaroli."
Every day at Primo, cooks come in at 7 a.m. to start the pasta-making process. Besides testaroli, they also work on house-made spaghetti, rigatoni, linguine, penne, pappardelle, lasagna, pici, strozzapreti, bigoli and tortelli. Another group of cooks has to come at 1 p.m. to continue before the restaurant opens at 5 p.m. Making all these different pastas is a lot of work, but Aliaga actually reined in his original ambitions at Primo—he started with 25 pastas.
If you couldn't tell from the ambitious pasta program, he is particular about his menu. "We don't recognize alfredo sauce," Aliaga says. "We don't serve barbecue pizza. One of my partners has a deep family history in Sicily. We serve Italian food."
The flour for pastas and pizzas at Primo is imported from Italy. So are the San Marzano tomatoes for sauce. The restaurant's cheese, salami, prosciutto, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and risotto also come from Italy. Aliaga even gets water from Italy to ensure his pizza dough comes out the way he wants.
And he's found an audience for that meticulous sourcing. When Aliaga was coming up at Los Angeles restaurants like Cecconi's West Hollywood in the last decade, it might have been harder to justify a program like Primo's. But not anymore. "People are a lot more open-minded about Italian food now. They come to Primo and accept and enjoy our food."
Particularly, as it turns out, the testaroli. Aliaga, sells about 100 orders every week.