I met Chef Andrea Cavaliere a few weeks ago, not at his restaurant, Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, but at Melrose Avenue Elementary School. Dressed in a traditional white chef’s jacket, he was helping children ages 6-11 plant lettuce, eggplant, parsley, lemon thyme and cilantro in the unique Woolly School Garden along a chain-link fence. Chef Andrea plans to buy the herbs from the school to use in his restaurant. The kids and Chef Andrea will also harvest this produce for a weekly salad bar in the school’s cafeteria.
Chef Andrea became involved with Melrose Avenue School as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Chefs Move to Schools” program.
“I was invited to the White House last June along with other chefs from across America to meet with First Lady Michelle Obama,” Cavaliere said in his melodic Italian accent. The program is part of the “Let’s Move” initiative to fight childhood obesity. The goal of the program is to improve school breakfast and lunch programs, and for families to appreciate nutritious and healthy cooking.
An adorable fourth grade girl walked up to Chef Andrea and told him that she wants to be a chef when she grows up, because of him. She showed him a picture of a vegetable she drew and asked, “How would you cook this chef?” He responded with “You could steam or braise it.” With a perplexed look on her face she said, “What does braise mean?” Chef Andrea crouched down to her level and explained the cooking technique that softens the vegetable and preserves the vitamins.
A week later, I went to Cecconi’s for dinner to observe Chef Andrea in his element. Located on the corner of Robertson Blvd. and Melrose Ave., this site has had an illustrious past. It was once Trump’s and then Morton’s. The classic Italian restaurant has a romantic outdoor patio area and a centerpiece bar, which is a replica of the bar at Cecconi’s in London. Enzo Cecconi opened his restaurant in the Mayfair area in 1978. It instantly became the late night, after-theater destination. Madonna discovered Cecconi’s and is a regular guest. Model Kate Moss, and actors Sienna Miller and Jude Law also frequent this A-list dining establishment.
We ordered a pumpkin margarita and a traditional Italian, Casa Negroni from the interesting cocktail menu. Chef Andrea stopped by our table and said he would prepare a special meal so we could sample some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
While soaking up the atmosphere, manager Janine Giesick shared with us that she and Chef Andrea worked in London together before flying across the Atlantic to open the West Hollywood restaurant in 2009.
Many of their patrons from London visit when in Los Angeles. “The Duchess of York had dinner the night before and Sharon Osbourne dined here last week,” Giesick said.
Chef Andrea enjoys cooking many of the items in a wood-oven with olive wood, like the wood-oven baked meatballs. Dense and small, the meatballs were infused with herbs and the olive wood flavor. Next, a grilled octopus with lemon, capers, thin celery stalks, tiny Italian olives, and heirloom cherry tomatoes with a drizzle of chili oil was presented. The five-inch-long octopus legs were tender and superb tasting. The octopus was bathed in white wine and then grilled to perfection. This the best octopus dish I’ve tasted.
The baked gnocchi “Romana” gorgonzola is rich and creamy, while the wood-oven scallops and pancetta speared with rosemary branches were divine. I ordered a Summerland “Fiddlestix” Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008 that accompanied the appetizers nicely.
Kobe beef tartare arrived with a cracked quail egg on top and yolk trickling down the dish. The British couple sitting next to us commented on the presentation and decided to order it. When I shared with them my adoration for the octopus dish, they ordered that too.
Truffles, a featured ingredient in several dishes on Cecconi’s menu, add a rich and luxurious flavor, as well as a “zing” to the tab. The cauliflower soup with black truffle is $20 and the goat cheese pizza with black truffle is $40. Without truffles, most appetizers are between $12 to $18, pasta dishes range from $14 to $22 and entrées begin around $24.
Save room for the desserts. The pastry chef creates an outstanding chocolate fondant with pistachio gelato and a baked ricotta cheesecake with fresh blueberry preserves.
Cecconi’s will be open Thanksgiving Day from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. serving specials such as butternut squash tortelli with amaretti crumble, parmigiano, butter and sage and venison medallions with sherry wine and morel sauce.
As we were about to leave, I noticed a gorgeous Damien Hirst (popular English artist) art piece of a big red heart. The beautiful and colorful artwork reminded me of Chef Andrea, a world-class chef with a big heart and soul. When he is not in Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, he is either at the Melrose Avenue School picking herbs with the students and creating a healthy lunch for them or flying to Miami Beach to supervise the newly opened Cecconi’s in the Soho Beach House. He is young, handsome, and full of energy. Chef Andrea definitely has my vote. 8764 Melrose Avenue. (310)432-2000.
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