Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo Tell Us How They Bring Their LA Spin To Italian Classics - Exclusive Interview

Los Angeles is known for its high-end restaurants and interesting innovations when it comes to fine dining. But no L.A. dining experience is complete without sitting down at one of the numerous eateries from Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. The two masterminds behind Son of a Gun, the now-defunct Animal, Helen's, Cookbook Market and Cafe, as well as the very popular Jon & Vinny's, are bringing their signature Italian cooking to South Beach for the 17th annual Wine & Food Festival

Combining their James Beard award-winning talents with longtime friends Alex Meyer and Luciana Giangrandi, these two are planning a one-night-only dinner that's sure to be full of passion, excitement, and of course, spectacular food and drink. While tickets to this event are sold out, tickets are still available for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival itself. But before you head to Florida to drool over all that fine food, we sat down with the two chefs for an exclusive interview to discuss what they're planning for this amazing dinner, if we might ever see the bone burger again, and what the secret is behind their incredibly creamy Jon & Vinny's polenta. 

Jon & Vinny have been friends with Alex Meyer for years

When do you head to Miami for the big dinner? A couple weeks before?

Jon Shook: We'll go down there the day before our dinner. And then, I know it sounds crazy, but we fly with all our food. When we do these kinds of events we make sure that the food is the same as what you get here at the restaurants. And because we don't have a facility down in Miami yet, we want to make sure that it stays consistent. So, we actually prep, pack into refrigerated boxes, and then check them at the airport like luggage.

What are you making?

Shook: We're doing pizza, mozzarella sticks, dessert, and the fusilli on our end. 

I know that you're hosting that dinner with Alex Meyer and Luciana Giangrande. How did you guys come together for this event?

Shook: Alex, I think his first-ever kitchen job was at Animal. 18 years ago, I think now. It's got to be at least 15, 16 years ago when he worked with us at Animal before he moved to New York where he then met his now wife and business partner. And we have stayed in contact through all these years. And whenever we go to Miami, we always hang out as a team, whether it's just going to dinner at his restaurant or actually getting time to actually break out and go to dinner. When he's in town, we always connect. And you know, whenever he's cooked out here, we've allowed him to kind of use our kitchen as a safe haven to prep and produce. So, our relationship with him and his wife-slash-business partner has been very long going and not just a business dinner. It's a real relationship between all of us.

And we have been working on trying to get the stakes down in Miami. From that, we have become even closer. Because we're spending more time down there, we've been spending a lot of time together. And when this came about, when Lee in South Beach had reached out about doing a dinner, Alex was kind of at the top of mind. He also gets it up to do these dinners as well. So, I think, between him and us, we just all felt like the synergy was there to make it a collab dinner. And being big fans of the food that they do and knowing the food that they do and knowing what Jon and Vinny's is, 'cause that is the brand that we're promoting down there, it made sense to do a collab dinner together.

Jon & Vinny's mozzarella sticks are always made fresh

You mentioned you will be making mozzarella sticks as part of the dinner. Can you tell me what makes yours so amazing?

Shook: I mean, one is we make them in-house. So, that's, I think, probably one of the big differences. I think a lot of people are used to a frozen product. The mozzarella itself is a huge component in the mozzarella sticks. And then our technique to making them, I think, is in the breading process and in the curing process that sets them apart. And then I think those two components really kind of dictate the mozzarella stick. And then I think our marinara sauce that we make, that we serve with it, which is made from Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, I think the flavors resonate very well with people.

I mean, whenever you start talking about mozzarella sticks or pizza or even hamburgers, you get into this ... you know, I'm sure you have a place that you love their mozzarella sticks, or you love their pizza, and your benchmark is kind of set around that experience. Even if they're not that great, it's set around that experience. And I think that ours resonates with a lot of people's flavor notes. And it just might either taste a little different or a little better or strike that chord.

I mean, one of the things that we look for with Jon & Vinny's food is, we like to say, the craveable factor where you think about it post-eating it. You're at home. "I could eat another slice of that," or, "I could have another bite of that." I think that's what we're after with all the food. And I think that, with the mozzarella sticks, I think that they kind of strike that chord with a lot of people. And it's hard not to like hot, gooey cheese no matter how it comes.

No, it's pretty much impossible. With your breading, are you willing to reveal any of the secret ingredients that make your breading so special?

Shook: I don't want to get into the nitty-gritty of it. But I would say that it's definitely designed after American-Italian flavors most Americans probably grew up eating.

Pizza for breakfast

You mentioned that you're also making pizza for the dinner in South Beach. Since Jon & Vinny's serves pizza all day, what would you recommend for a breakfast pizza? 

Shook: We have a couple of breakfast pizzas that we do at the restaurant. But what's funny about pizza, is that even a Margherita or the Little Mac, which is our pepperoni, or it's Jonny's favorite that has bacon on it ... These pizzas naturally lend themselves to people wanting them in the morning. I mean, we do a breakfast pizza that has a cooked potato that's grated and put on top of the dough and has Parmesan and has a fried egg, but I think people eat regular cheese pizza kind of for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That's what's kind of interesting about saying what is a breakfast pizza. I mean, at least myself, my kids, one of their favorite things is cold pizza in the morning right out of the refrigerator.

That's what we grew up on in college, right?

Shook: Exactly. Exactly. They're not in college yet. They're much younger than that, but they sure love those flavors of cold Margherita. I would say that just because it's breakfast time doesn't mean that it needs to have an egg on it.

But your breakfast pizza does have potato and eggs on it. How did you pick those toppings? Did you just go with classic breakfast ingredients?

Shook: I wouldn't say that it's driven based on what breakfast is. I think that obviously people think of eggs and potatoes as a traditional American breakfast probably from diners, but, no, I would say that as we're looking at designing any pizza, whether it's traditional or non-traditional, it's thinking about how it's going to cook, how it's going to taste. Does it work with our dough? And that's kinda where we start and we're always kinda R&D-ing our current pizzas and as well future pizzas that might come on the menu.

We used to for a long time cook the egg actually on the pizza in the oven, and now we've switched to actually cooking the egg in a pan and putting it on top of the pizza when it comes out of the oven. So, some of it comes down to creating consistency across all the stores and making sure that the cooks are able to execute it. And you know, for us, we want to have a runny egg, especially a runny yolk in the middle. Cooking it in the oven is an art, and making sure that the dough and the egg works there. And because you have so many different people that make the pizzas across all the restaurants, we're always looking to standardize. So, if you went to Slauson or Fairfax or Brentwood or Beverly Hills, or wherever, you would get the same finished product. So, that's part of the reason, and that's where we're constantly R&D-ing current product and future product because, as you grow, you need to make sure that you're able to execute what it is that you're after.

Animal may be closed but you can still sample some of its most iconic dishes

The closing of Animal in Los Angeles was a huge loss to the L.A. restaurant scene. Do you plan on bringing back your crispy ears or your bone burger in any other capacity or at any other of your restaurants?

Shook: We are doing the Hamachi Tostada at Son of a Gun currently. That dish did resonate over there. It's crazy because we have backlogs of thousands of recipes and Carmelized Productions, our catering arm, does get hit to do some of these dishes. But currently, no, there's no current plan to put the pig ears anywhere. 

I mean, right now a lot of our focus is Jon & Vinny's and the growth of Jon and Vinny's. And then we opened Cookbook on Larchmont. We're still honing into what that is, but I don't know that the pig ears and the bone burger work for Cookbook. As it's in our recipe binder and in our recipe history, it might be asked for on the catering front. I don't know that we currently have any plans to reintroduce Animal or some of those kinds of O.G. Animal dishes out into any of our other locations.

Speaking of Son of a Gun, the skirt steak there has this "Dad Spice" on it. How did you come up with that?

Vinny Dotolo: The Dad Spice was really just kind of an interpretation of a Montreal steak seasoning kind of thing that I felt a lot of people grew up with. And that's kind of really it. I mean, Son of a Gun is kind of a throwback to, I feel like, a lot of our sort of childhood memories of where we grew up and the things that we used to eat and things that we love. And I think everything we do is really just kind of based around that in general, just like things that we love to do and love to cook and have. So, that was really it. It's really just kind of like a homemade sort of Montreal steak seasoning.

Secrets from Jon & Vinny's

What are some of the secrets to making your polenta at Jon & Vinny's so rich and creamy?

Shook: Well, the actual polenta itself is from Anson Mills, which I don't know if you're familiar with them, but their product is, I think, far superior. The texture of the grind on the polenta, the actual flavor of the polenta itself, is fantastic and creamy to taste. I think that's a common word that people relay with their polenta, especially if it's cooked based on their instructions. So, I would say that it's the polenta itself that gives it its leg up on it. There's no real secret behind it other than sourcing and ordering the product and then following the directions to cooking it.

Jon & Vinny's has tiramisu on the menu that is made with Cynar. How did you decide to go with an artichoke-based liqueur?

Dotolo: The Cynar was actually just sort of an evolution of the recipe, and trying to just balance that thing out properly. We had no alcohol in it before. We've gone literally all the way around the block on it. It's been higher alcohol. We've kicked it back down recently. We've added more mascarpone. More egg yolks. We're just always looking to strike that balance. 

How we decided to get there was sort of having lots of tiramisus in the world. And I had one that had used amaro in it, and I loved it, and I thought that was a good idea to kind of try to add that in because typically it's rum for a lot of people. 

But, I mean, people have taken it all over the place. Jon and I used to work at a hotel in Dale, Colorado, and the guy used to use Kahlua and rum, and he used to mix it into the actual mascarpone. And you'd have to do it with your hands really gently so it didn't break the mascarpone because there was no real whipped cream in it. It was almost a like a beurre blanc kind of texture in the end with the sponge and the sponge was a sheet. Yeah, we've gone all over. We've used ladyfingers. We've made our own sponge. We're always tinkering with everything.

You've been on "Hell's Kitchen" several times. And Gordon Ramsay has talked about how much he loves Jon & Vinny's. Have you ever hung out with him outside of "Hell's Kitchen" or collaborated on anything together?

Dotolo: Never collaborated with him. We've hung out a couple times. I respect, I mean, I love Gordon. I know Jon feels the same way. I mean, to have a career that he's had is nearly impossible in this industry. And he's definitely an inspirational person. He's very driven. Very determined. He is incredibly efficient, smart, I have lots of good things to say about him. I mean, TV edits and character and all that kind of stuff, but I think he's a great person and a great chef and sort of a great leader in our industry.

The South Beach Wine & Food Festival runs February 22-25. Tickets can be purchased here.

This interview has been edited for clarity.