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In the Kitchen: Il Grano goes beyond Italian

Owner Sal Marino rises to the daily challenge of sourcing L.A.'s best fish

 - Photo courtesy of Il Grano
By Joan M. Lang
January 01, 2007

Sal Marino is obsessed with quality. The chef-owner of Il Grano in west Los Angeles rises every morning at 4 to beat all the other chefs in town to the best seafood from his favorite purveyors. Marino's tactic seems to have worked: In a town where restaurants go out of style as fast as last year's shoes, Il Grano has stayed on every Top 10 list since it opened nine years ago. And in a city with an estimated 300 sushi bars, Il Grano has become known for its crudo, or Italian-style raw fish.

At any given time, approximately half of Il Grano's customers are having crudo, says Marino, who grew up in a well-known L.A. restaurant family. The restaurant has become synonymous for this pristine fresh specialty and is consistently named one of the best seafood restaurants in town.

Since opening Il Grano, Marino has changed the menu considerably, from typical Italian offerings like veal scaloppine and penne arrabbiata to a one-of-a-kind, ingredient-focused selection that changes nightly and derives 80 percent of sales from seafood.

Marino says he was shy in the beginning. "I thought I had to do a certain type of food, that that's what people expected." But having spent several years honing his craft at Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy, he knew there were other things to cook besides typical Italian fare.

"So I said, 'No, you may not have Caesar salad. You may not have penne arrabbiata. I am going to cook what I want to cook.'"

The decision changed his life, but he never looked back. "I cook a lot of fish," he says. "But I never wanted to cook meat."

Marino also owns the more casual La Bottega Marino, with one location next door to Il Grano and another in neighboring Larchmont. La Bottega is where Marino serves "regular" Italian food, such as pizza, panini and pasta.

The Il Grano menu features an expanding selection of seafood, prepared Italian-style with contemporary American touches: whole branzino baked in salt; grilled Queen Charlotte Island king salmon with roasted vegetables and black truffle sauce; and squid-ink pasta with cuttlefish and sea-urchin sauce.

And crudo. Marino introduced the raw-fish specialty in 1998 and believes he was the first chef in Los Angeles to do so. "Everyone credits Mario, Mario, Mario [Batali, at New York's Esca]" Marino says with typical Italian brio, "but they've been doing this in Italy for years."

Well, not quite like this. What has evolved over the past eight years is a signature Fantasia di Crudo, consisting of the best fish the market has to offer, each with its own garnish or accompaniment. In early October, for instance, Il Grano offered a kumamoto oyster, a live scallop and a sea urchin, a bit of fluke with basil oil, a taste of hiramasa (line-caught yellowtail with breakfast radish and pea shoot) and a marinated fresh anchovy from Japan.

Hearing him rhapsodize about the crudo is a lot like listening to a serious oenophile describe a particularly satisfying flight of wines.

"I always have a scallop, because people love that fresh-cucumber taste," he says, "and usually some sort of lean white fish, like bass or branzino, for its clean flavor. Also, wonderful tuna or something else that's oily and rich. Each is selected for its own distinctive taste, texture and 'bite,' and each must have its own garnish or sauce that brings out its best qualities."

Often, there is a tentacled item - cuttlefish, perhaps, or even octopus - and a blue-skinned fish like an anchovy or fresh sardine. Whatever the species, people gobble it up, either a la carte at $15 or as part of a tasting menu.

But with the popularity comes the challenge: The chef has had to fight to get the quality and variety of fish he wants. He shops daily, trolling the Asian markets, "four blocks over for oysters, three blocks down there for scallops," moving his car when he needs to. Afterwards, he hits the farmer's market for fresh produce, shopping like a true Italian, buying only enough for that day's service. "It's better that way," he explains.

At first, the notoriously insular Japanese fishmongers would have nothing to do with him: "'Too bad, that's reserved,' they'd tell me. They wondered what this white guy was doing there."

The "white guy" persisted. With all the sushi restaurants in town competing for fresh seafood, he had to set himself apart. He had to win the local fishmongers' trust. He asked questions. He asked his sushi-chef friends to vet him. After three years, his perseverance paid off. "Now," he says, "they fax me the list of 'special' specials. They even call me when they get something in."

When two wild Alaska sturgeon came into town not too long ago, Marino got one of them - something akin to winning the lottery. He got it because he was on-site in the store at 6 a.m., before the salesman could call Patina or the Water Grill, two other big-name seafood users in L.A.

Marino has had to overcome some resistance about the species he serves and the crudo.

"People would say, 'This is not Italian, this is fusion.' Or, 'Raw fish is Japanese.'" That's why it's been especially important for Marino to focus on great quality.

Fish bought in the morning is used for crudo only that day. If he buys something extraordinary, like the Queen Charlotte salmon, he'll cook the rest as a special entrée and will cure and smoke some to hold for a few days and use in an appetizer. There are also several daily fresh-fish specials on the menu at La Bottega Marino.

And there's always next morning's shopping.

"What can I say?" laughs Marino. "It's like women and shoes. This is what I love."

 

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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