Fine dining is nothing new for California's West Hollywood neighborhood. But RivaBella, which opened in January of 2013, brings an authentic Italian experience to the Sunset Strip.
With a sprawling space reminiscent of an old Tuscan farmhouse, the restaurant features a 2,800-square-foot al fresco dining area and large wine cave. RivaBella's menu focuses on authentic ingredients and classic cooking techniques of Italy.
"People are reverting back to food actually from Italy and not the red-sauce, Italian-American style from the East Coast," says Brent Berkowitz, director of development and operations for Innovative Dining Group, owner/operator of RivaBella along with six other restaurant concepts located in Southern California.
To bring even more authenticity to the operation, Michelin star–winning Italian chef Luigi Fineo, formerly with La Botte and French Laundry, recently stepped in as the new executive chef.
Berkowitz spoke with FE&S about RivaBella, including the food focus and production methods.
FE&S: RivaBella's goal is to create an authentic experience. How does your concept deliver on this brand promise?
BB: Our restaurant is focused on seasonal, local ingredients that have been prepared with a strong Italian sensibility, most in the style of Emilia Romagna, a region in northern Italy. Flavors are big and bold, while still paying homage to our health-centric community. The trend for today's Italian restaurants are new fresh flavors and ingredients used in traditional preparations and styles.
FE&S: Please describe the restaurant's production process, including key pieces of equipment and their roles in food production.
BB: All our food, from pasta to breads and gelato, is made in house. Every step is key. Let's take pasta, for example. Some varieties are made of Semolina flour, others with pistachio, Chardonnay, Cabernet or even house-made ricotta. Pasta is either hand shaped or put through our custom-made extruder. Some is fresh and used immediately, while other types are allowed to air dry to create an extra al dente bite when cooked.
FE&S: Please describe your menu, including signature dishes. How has it changed?
BB: Our menu is in a constant flux based on what is good and what is available. Our signature dishes include a roasted Mediterranean octopus with Taggiasca olives, potatoes, celery leaves and spicy tomato sauce; pappardelle made with pistachio flour, with lamb and peach ragu; and risotto made with one-year-aged Acquerello rice and finished with porcini and black truffles tableside in a giant 24-month-old Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese wheel.
FE&S: What are the biggest challenges facing the Italian restaurant segment, and how do you overcome them?
BB: Usually people think of Italian food as heavy pastas laden with cream and meat sauce, but that is not always the case. Our food is actually quite the opposite. Staff training is key. Product and ingredient knowledge, coupled with tasting everything, really allows the servers to be the tour guides that we want and not just order takers.
FE&S: How does your equipment support customers' experience at RivaBella?
BB: Our focus is always on quality and not cutting corners. Any equipment that can aid in that goal, including our gelato machine, pasta extruder and wood burning pizza oven, is key.
FE&S: How have you seen this segment evolve, and what are your predictions for its future?
BB: Things are just getting more and more exciting. The public is becoming more educated about food, where it comes from and how it is prepared, which is challenging chefs to raise the bar. Product quality is very important, and with it we are seeing the renaissance of the small family farm. I think that in the future farms will be focusing more on a few high-quality crops; food will be more wholesome, and international flavors will continue to meld into new flavor profiles.