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L.A.’s Best Restaurant Is Italian — With a Jewish Accent

Chef Zach Pollack in the kitchen of Alimento.

No one was more surprised to learn that Los Angeles magazine had named two-year-old L.A.’s best Italian restaurant than the chef behind it.

But Zach Pollack’s legion of fans took it in stride; Alimento’s earned raves for both its earthy, honest Italian and the detours Pollack takes into Jewish, Asian, even Latin cuisine. Pollack’s celebrated spin on traditional baccalà, a salt cod dish described as “prepared in the style of the Mantovan Jew” on Alimento’s brief menu, even represents a bagel with lox and cream cheese, Pollack has said.

A native Angeleno, Pollack cooked his way across Italy before returning to his hometown in 2009. Two years later, he and a partner opened Italian spot Sotto in L.A.’s Pico-Robertson “kosher corridor.” With Alimento, his first solo venture, Pollack’s come into his own.

“Observing tradition even as he gooses it, elevating through restraint, always keeping things loose, Pollack honors a heritage and, with a very Italian naturalness, renders it for a harried modern age,” gushed Los Angeles magazine’s Patric Kuh last month.

“I’m still in a state of disbelief about that,” Pollack says.

The Forward caught up with Pollack in the kitchen of his Silver Lake hotspot.

With dishes like Jewish brisket and polenta, you make the Jewish/Italian connection seem natural. Has it always been that way?
It becomes stronger the older I get. I think I’ve come to appreciate my heritage and maybe even some of the early tastes I took for granted. Not that they were particularly good; my mother can’t cook, and my grandmother hates cooking. That said, whatever the quality of cooking, something made a strong impression on me at young age. Since I opened Alimento, those things have come up indirectly, but naturally — our grilled yellowtail collar, which is smoked and served with potatoes, sour cream and capers, very much evokes Jewish smoked fish. It’s fresh and dairy-heavy. But it’s definitely a more abstract influence.

Your brisket’s also been a runaway hit. What inspired it?
All of the brisket I ever had came in varying degrees of awful or dry. I approached it the way a chef would approach anything — how do I make it better? What’s the right cut of brisket? Can I find a better-quality cow? So I bring in all of these things from a chef’s point of view, and some familiarity with how a good Jewish brisket should taste. The outcome’s something I’m really proud of.

Is there a distinctly L.A. sensibility to your food?
Absolutely. The most obvious is the cross-cultural influence that inflects the food here. Our tortellini, famously, play on Chinese soup dumplings. Chinatown’s on the other side of downtown. There’s sometimes a strong Latin influence. Our pigs-in-a-blanket is very Americana. It’s the way Angelenos like to eat. But we’re not just doing a loose reinterpretation of Italian food. There’s a lot of fidelity to Italian traditions and flavors here. It’s a calculated kind of tinkering.

Can you tell us about your Jewish background?
I grew up in West L.A., in a Reform Jewish household. My grandparents on my mother’s side are Holocaust survivors. My grandmother’s still alive; she’s 91. Because of what they went through, I have a strong — not religiousness or spirituality — but a strong commitment to keep alive the traditions that my parents and I inherited in some way.

That’s not to say I’d ever tell my future kids to believe in Moses or God. Frankly, I don’t believe in organized religion. But it would be sad for me to let everything my grandparents fought for in their lives to totally disappear. It’s all about maintaining certain Jewish traditions in a cultural way. My wife and I light candles. Not always by sundown, and sometimes at midnight. But I love the idea of having a Shabbat dinner one day, serving the kind of food my grandparents would have cooked. So much of Jewish tradition is about people coming together over food.

What do you and your wife, Ali, cook at home?
We try to limit things to one pot or pan, occasionally two. We don’t love to clean up. Lately it’s been a lot of something between a stew and braise. We’ll cook chicken thighs with a bunch of vegetables. The juices meld, and it comes out very cohesive. We’ll make a salad. Chicken’s my go-to. If you want to do a great roast, you need a long time. Steak’s nice, but who can eat that much steak? It’s funny: Growing up, I thought chicken was beyond boring. I’d scoff at anyone ordering it in a restaurant.

So many chefs build brands through cookbooks and TV appearances. What’s next for you?
I can’t spill too many beans on my next project, but Italy comes into play. It’ll be different from Alimento and Sotto. I’d love to have a cookbook, but will never make my living doing it. My number-one business will always be cooking at and running a restaurant.

Michael Kaminer is a contributing editor at the Forward.

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