In the seven years since Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo opened their game-changing Animal restaurant, the chefs have gone from being the dudes to the dads.
The fellas who introduced Los Angeles to foie gras moco loco and decided to serve poutine with oxtail gravy and cheddar cheese—at a restaurant where, in one of my favorite L.A. moments ever, I saw whippet-thin starlet Zoe Saldana digging into a enormous plate of fried quail one month before Avatar was released—have nothing to prove anymore. L.A. recognizes them as culinary icons, they’ve partnered with Ludo Lefebvre on Trois Mec and Petit Trois, they regularly find themselves in the middle of fully booked events like the two-night pop-up they just hosted with Aaron Franklin, Adam Perry Lang, and Roy Choi, and their culinary offspring, Animal and Son of a Gun, remain as vital as ever.
Shook has said that he and Dotolo want Jon & Vinny’s, the new pizza and pasta restaurant they opened Monday on Fairfax Avenue a meatball’s throw away from Animal, to be a place where their kids grow up and learn how to eat.
I recently became a dad too, so I can tell you that fatherhood really does make you value practicality over spectacle. But the thing is, when you’re talking about talents and work ethics like Shook and Dotolo’s, being practical can still be pretty damn spectacular.
So I find myself in the three-hour-old Jon & Vinny’s at 11 a.m. yesterday, ready to eat some pasta with meat sauce.
When I arrive, the restaurant is still serving a breakfast menu that should be well-received by the Sqirl/Huckleberry/Gjusta set. (The soft-scrambled eggs at Jon & Vinny’s even come with grilled Gjusta ciabatta.) There are cast-iron buttermilk pancakes with strawberries from Harry’s Berries. Kenter Canyon stone-ground porridge comes with toasted almonds, the marvels that are low-acid/high-sweetness Gaviota strawberries, orange blossom honey, and your choice of almond milk or organic whole milk. Olive-oil fried eggs are served with grilled Tuscan kale and potato hash, ’nduja, and preserved Meyer lemon. There are also pastries galore, like banana bread, honey date scones, and daily bomboloni. I order a strawberry rhubarb crostata and an iced tea as I wait for lunch service to start at 11:30 a.m.
The opening-day lunch menu, which Shook says overlaps a lot with the dinner menu and of course will keep evolving, includes pork, beef, and veal meatballs (with ricotta and garlic bread) that are the stuff of Italian-American red-sauce dreams, bursting with meatiness and tomato flavor. There are also seasonal vegetable dishes, seven pizzas (including the Sonny’s Favorite with grilled Niman Ranch slab bacon, mozzarella, tomato, onion, and grana padano; and the L.A. Woman with local burrata, tomato, basil, olive oil, and sea salt), and nine pastas. I try the tagliatelle with six-hour pork, beef, and veal bolognese, which reminds me of eating at pioneering Brooklyn restaurant Al di Là more than a decade ago, and a bright lamb agnolotti with green garlic, mustard greens, and pecorino that tastes like spring 2015 in L.A.
Much more than Animal and Son of a Gun, Jon & Vinny’s wants to be a family-friendly neighborhood restaurant. It’s where you can come in for some sweets and grab a pizza to go, or where you can call to get meatballs delivered along with a bottle of wine from the Helen’s wine shop nestled in the back of the restaurant. (Helen Johannesen is the director of operations and beverage director for Shook and Dotolo.)
If you grew up in the United States, there’s a decent chance you largely grew up on Italian-American food. Some of it was probably not that good, whether you were eating pasta or sauce out of cans or jars, gorging at all-you-can-eat pizza buffets, or discovering this new “special-occasion” restaurant called The Olive Garden in high school. Now, of course, some of the country’s most celebrated chefs on both coasts, led by Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi of New York’s Carbone and Parm, are betting the house on red sauce. It’s not so unlike what Nate Appleman, a Shook and Dotolo pal whose tattoos were as prominent as Dotolo’s on Food & Wine’s 2009 Best New Chefs cover, did with his meatballs and pizzas at A16 in San Francisco. It might not exactly be groundbreaking, but at places like Jon & Vinny’s, it’s no doubt delicious, the food of so many childhoods updated with quality ingredients by chefs who have long proven they can cook anything.
By noon on Monday, the 45-seat Jon & Vinny’s is getting jammed with customers. The phone rings. Somebody wants to order delivery. Shook is asked if the restaurant is ready to start delivering. He emphatically says yes and offers to take the phone even as employees wonder who’s actually going to deliver the food.
I finish my meatballs and take two pizzas to go, which I will share with my toddlers. It’s nice to live in a city where they can grow up on food like this.
Jon & Vinny’s is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.