“I’m not a chef, I’m Italian”- David Rocco


Monday, October 8, 2012

Chef Chat: Diego Ortoli of Portofino Cucina Italiana


Chef Chat: Diego Ortoli of Portofino Cucina Italiana

Ciao a tutti!! I am so excited to present my first interview with an Italian chef that will be part of a new feature called Chef Chat. This month, I am delighted to introduce you to Diego Ortoli of Portofino Cucina Italiana in downtown Los Angeles. Portofino Cucina Italiana brings the true feeling of Italian culture to Los Angeles, blending tradition, simplicity and authentic food and atmosphere.Be sure to take a look at the restaurants site so you can savor all of the delicious menu items and read more about Diego and his restaurant- http://portofinodtla.com/


Chef Diego Ortoli and his wife Atsuko
You grew up in Naples, famous for its tomatoes and lemons. Has that inspired your menu?

Diego's Spaghetti con Polpette at Portofino
Yes, of course. I grew up in the sun, where food is prepared simple with fresh ingredients every day. I wanted to have on my menu at least one of my favorite foods I enjoyed eating when little. So I decided to offer a very simple but classic dish as Spaghetti Pomodoro e Basilico. It's beautifully light but packed with flavours. We make it to order with just juicy, organic fresh tomatoes, organic garlic, organic basil and extra virgin olive oil. You can't have anything more simple, yet a timeless recipe that never fails to satisfy people.
What is your signature dish and would you please share the recipe with us?
I'll share how we prepare the spaghetti Pomodoro.
You'll have to make an incision on some ripe fresh tomatoes and then blanch them for about 10 seconds. Then put them in a bowl of iced water to stop the cooking. This way you'll be able to easily take the skin off. Take them from the water, drain, chop them and put them aside for later.
Once you want to make the sauce, you'll gently heat some olive oil in a skillet, then add about a tablespoon of chopped garlic and cook until golden brown, then add the tomatoes you blanched and a couple of tablespoons of shredded basil. Adjust with salt and pepper and cook briefly until the tomato sauce is ready (about 5 minutes). If you like, you can add parmesan cheese to the pasta once on the plate.

Fettuccine alla Piemontese at Portofino
When did you first fall in love with cooking?
I think it happened gradually. I remember my mom was a teacher and sometimes she had to work the evening shift (yes, we have that too in Italy, at some times of the year). So she'd call and tell me how to cook something for me and my younger brother. I think I learned how to cook over the phone. Kinda cool. Somehow all that cooking lessons stayed with me and eventually I used that knowledge to my advantage.
I saw that you offer a gluten free menu at Portofino which is fantastic for those with gluten allergies. A lot of Italian food centers around pasta, risotto, bread and pizza, what made you add this feature to your menu?
Yes, we have an extensive gluten free menu that offers plenty of choices and we're also adding more items like gnocchi and ravioli especially made gluten free. Oh and we have a fabulous gluten free flourless chocolate cake. Really delicious!
The idea was brought to me by many of my customers who told me they discovered they have some degree of gluten intolerance. Therefore to satisfy those requests, I started looking into it. I then discovered that gluten free pasta is actually tasty. And bread too. Some breads more than others, but once toasted is pretty tasty. So I started putting together the menu and now we have so many people on a gluten free lifestyle coming here and enjoying Italian food in a restaurant again.
Inside Portofino Cucina Italiana

What is the most popular dish at Portofino? 
Gnocchi, hands down. We make them fresh every morning. They are so magic. Fluffy and light, they just melt in your mouth. We offer the selection of three classic sauces, Bolognese, Pesto, and Gorgonzola (a little rich, but my favourite!)
A lot of people love Italian food, as a matter of fact, you have to look hard to find people who don’t like it, what do you think it is about Italian food that makes people enjoy it so much and brings everyone together?
Tiramisu at Portofino
Well Italian food is comforting, that's what it is. And of course is also very tasty. My only regret is that some people associate it with something heavy. I strongly disagree. Eating Italian food is not going to make you feel heavy more than American food or French food. Can you imagine eating a bacon cheeseburger with avocado and fries? That's heavy.
Pasta is a very balanced food in itself. It has proteins, carbs and a little of fat. At the most what CAN be heavy is the sauce YOU choose to eat with it.
You want to stay slim as most Italians in Italy? Just avoid creamy white sauces and don't fill up yourself with the free bread (my mom would have never allowed me to eat it before my meals).
I feel like it's important to bring this to people’s attention. We already live in a society that frowns upon carbs, and sending a positive message about Italian food is necessary now more than ever before. Some people are brainwashed to think carbs are bad, always. Like my mom was always telling me, everything is good in moderation. I want to take this opportunity to remind that to people, after all a little obvious but reminding it can't hurt.
Food can transport me to another time and make me remember something wonderful. I am always talking about my Nonna’s fried cauliflower and what beautiful memories I have of her making it for me. What are some of your favorite food memories?
Making cakes with my mom. Once a year at my b-day she'd make a strawberry cake I absolutely loved. That was a happy time. She really tried to make us feel we were not missing on anything. She'd always say, “I make it for you so it's fresh and we know is genuine. If I just buy it it's easy, but I make it for you and it tastes better.” I totally agree with it. I have to say she knows how to make it very good. I don't think I can match the deliciousness of her strawberry cake, actually!
Are any of the recipes from Portofino family recipes? And if so, who are they from? 
Well they are all, more or less, family recipes. We are proud to serve traditional Italian food at Portofino. We take the recipes we believe represent the traditional way of cooking a specific dish and avoid changing it. Sometimes, especially younger people, seems to me are looking for dishes with extra bold flavors – lots of ingredients, meats, bacon and so on. Italian food is in most cases just the opposite. Less is more here.  And believe me, less IS more.
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I hope you have enjoyed reading this interview with Diego as much as I have!! Please take a look at his site and make your reservations right away!! http://portofinodtla.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/PortofinoDTLA?fref=ts