Long before Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo stirred up L.A.'s Fairfax Avenue with custardy veal brains and poutine glistening with oxtail gravy at Animal or mashed up French, Mex and brunch with Ludo Lefebvre at Trois Familia in trendy Silver Lake, they were just two culinary students at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale trying to master the mother sauces. And not annoy their neighbors with smacks of pizza dough.
"We lived on the third floor of our apartment building, and our ceiling in one area was 15 feet tall, so we thought it was so fun to toss the pizza and see how far we could throw it before it hit the roof and without it breaking," Shook reminisces.
However, these weren't just silly schoolboy antics for the young cooks.
"Italian-American is something we deeply loved separately and the food we most commonly ate out in general," Dotolo adds. "It was one of the first concepts we wanted to do before Animal."
"It" is Jon & Vinny's, the pair's ode to Italian American cooking, which opened about a year ago just down the street from Animal, the offal-celebrating restaurant that earned them all the accolades (a star from the L.A. Times in 2008 a few months after opening and Food & Wine's Best New Chef award a year later). They didn't go on a research trip for the restaurant, touring red sauce joints along Arthur Avenue in the Bronx or bugging Dotolo's dad back in New Jersey. They didn't need to.
"Going out to eat all these pizzas and pasta and stuff over the last 18 years we've been cooking together is something we already did," Shook says. "It's something more rooted for us."
So when we asked the two to play "hosts" for our monthly dinner party series, they went full Sunday supper—but with a little California sunshine. Rib eye bathes in warm spices and red wine for the most aromatic steak (see the recipe). Crisp yellow wax beans luxuriate in thyme, red pepper flakes and generous glugs of olive oil for the most perfect warm salad (see the recipe). Bloomin' Onions (a throwback to Shook's station when he worked at Outback Steakhouse) inspire their craggy-shelled and delicious fried spring onions with chile aioli (see the recipe). And, of course, you can't forget the pasta: Here, it's cacio e pepe, no frills but still with all the thrills (see the recipe).
"L.A. had sort of more old-school Italian American restaurants," Dotolo says. "It had great food, but it had a big gap in ambitious cooking and a younger spirit. This was always on our radar."
Jon & Vinny's might seem the easiest or most straightforward in their family of adventurous, genre-bending restaurants to pull off, but it's actually been the opposite for the two chefs.
"You would look at Animal and think it's most complicated, but Italian food is the hardest, because if you make spaghetti Bolognese, people have eaten it 100 times, and they know what it looks like," Dotolo says.
"All of our dishes are super basic, three to four ingredients, whereas at Animal and Son of a Gun, there can be 40 different ingredients on there," Shook continues. "The more you add, the more you can hide. Once you strip it back, you see more."
That's why they take their pizza dough super seriously—fermented for a couple of days, leaning more toward thin Connecticut-style than Neapolitan—and rein in the urge to throw everything that's in season all the time in Southern California (tomatoes! Romanesco!) on the menu. It reflects a certain level of maturation for the chefs, who both now have families and who often describe Jon & Vinny's as family friendly. As their restaurant empire has grown, so have they.
"Animal was an art project. It was installation art. I knew not everyone was going to get this, but it felt right for us and the culture of L.A.," Dotolo says. "Jon & Vinny's is the restaurant we bring our families to the most."
This doesn't mean the old guys don't have a few tricks up their sleeves.
"There are things we haven't been able to get with the menu," Dotolo continues, "Chicken piccata, lasagna and brigole. That's what our second iteration of Jon & Vinny's will be like."
Looks like the family is getting a little bigger.
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