All in the Famiglia
Risotto's the ticket home for Chef Steve Samson.
February 27, 2019 ● 2 min read
By Aralyn Beaumont | Illustration by Zoe van Dijk
Food, for many children of immigrant parents, is one of the most palpable ways of forming a connection to their ancestral roots. For the children of Italian mothers, cooking is a non-negotiable part of their identity. Case in point: Chef Steve Samson, who grew up in LA, but has built a career as a chef inspired by his summers in Bologna with his grandparents.
Every movie set in Italy has prepared you for the imagery: a doting nonna rolling out fresh pasta while a pot of ragu simmers on the stove. A rustic farm outside the house, where produce is picked fresh and turned into salads, and pork chops and sausages are grilled over a fire. It's a romantic style of cooking that inspires so many young chefs, and Samson lived it every summer of his adolescence.
He learned to cook young, but by the time he reached his mid-twenties, he was on track to follow the path laid out by his father and brother, who are both doctors. Even though he'd take the MCAT and complete a post-bac program at Columbia University to finish the classes required for medical school, Samson would never actually apply to med school. He’d go on to open three hyper-successful restaurants in Los Angeles: Sotto, Rossoblu, and Superfine Pizza.
“Looking back, I wish I had started cooking sooner, but I mean what are you going to do—life takes you on a journey. Everything happens for a reason,” he says. “I definitely would have liked to work in a super high-end restaurant in New York, like Daniel, Jean-Georges, or Gramercy Tavern—places like that. That’s the one part I didn’t really get to do. I worked at some really nice places in Italy but I [wound up] figuring everything out on my own.”
What Samson got instead of fine-dining street cred is what sets him apart from most other Italian restaurants in California: Northern Italian food that is deeply connected to his heritage. His newest restaurant, Rossoblu, is a marriage of the heavy Italian dishes common to the north and seasonal California produce. Many homemade pastas and rustic meat dishes rotate around stuffed, fried, and lightly dressed vegetables—think chicory salads and stewed beans in the winter, and thinly sliced eggplant and fried zucchini in the summers. This winter's variation is rich with radicchio, gorgonzola, and Lambrusco.
"Food from Emilia-Romagna can be kind of heavy. It’s a hearty cuisine because the climate is a little colder there,” he explains. “[In] California, we definitely lighten up a lot of the dishes, which I think helps bring out the freshness and the flavors in the product, instead of just burying everything in pork fat and butter.
Samson’s casual spot, Superfine Pizza, is devoted to Neopolitan cuisine and sits comfortably across the street from Rossoblu in Downtown LA (Sotto, on the other hand, was directly across LA in Culver City). He runs both restaurants with his wife, Dina, who he met back at UCSD, long before a career as a chef crossed his mind. "The second I was put into a kitchen, I knew it was right for me. It was cool—it was a good feeling to finally have a purpose in life, to not just be floating around. It's kind of hard to be in your mid-twenties and still have no clue what you want to do with your life. It wasn’t necessarily a happy time in my life, but once I started cooking, I knew that was what I wanted to do."