By Contributing Writer, Lorraine LoBianco
Restaurateur Kevin Goldfein bought Rosti Tuscan Kitchen’s Santa Monica, California restaurant two years ago. A favorite in the Montana neighborhood since 1995, it was in need of a facelift. Kevin wanted to bring the Santa Monica restaurant into the 21st Century; not just with remodeling, new paint, more outside seating and an Italian-style sidewalk garden, but with a new sensibility that extended to his menu. Two months ago, he added vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free menus to his Santa Monica and Encino locations.
I recently sat down with Kevin at his Santa Monica restaurant to discuss the vegan menu and get some suggestions for wine pairings.
Lorraine: Going to an Italian restaurant can be a predictable experience for a vegan. The menu is full of dishes with sausage, chicken, beef, lamb, and fish, but not a lot of variety for a vegan. Rosti Tuscan Kitchen’s vegan menu is more than just the usual salads, meatless marinara dish or soups. You’ve also got raviolis and sandwiches on egg-less Ciabatta bread. What motivated you to add a vegan menu to Rosti?
Kevin: I wanted to offer more things to more people and it doesn’t change the style of our restaurant. I don’t have a vegan lifestyle. However, my cholesterol is high so I’ve started to eat healthier and started to just cut red meat and cheeses out of my diet as much as I can because it’s healthier for me. And since I’ve owned Rosti, I’ve noticed that I eat here about eight times a week. And there’s a lot of things I can eat on my menu that don’t have cheese and don’t have meat and those just by chance translate into vegan.
And that’s just a testament to a true Tuscan-inspired menu and Tuscan preparation of food, which is our style of restaurant. It’s very traditional in that respect because it’s simple ingredients made with olive oil, not a lot of butter, not a lot of heavy sauces. If it’s vegetables, it’s just the vegetables without these heavy dressings and heavy sauces and heavy cheeses.
Our menu is very easy to adapt to vegan and adapt to vegetarian. I looked at our salad menu and if you take out one ingredient on basically every salad, now it’s vegan, or it’s vegetarian. And because we prepare everything here on sight, we don’t bring in heavy dressings and other stuff, we can control it and have confidence, when serving it to a vegan, that this truly is vegan. That’s why we introduced the menu because we already had the stuff so it was very simple.
I’ll give you an example – the arugula and fig salad. It’s vegetarian already, so in order to make it vegan the only thing we had to do was take out the goat cheese and change it from a honey balsamic dressing to a balsamic dressing because vegans don’t eat honey.
We’d have vegans come in and say “What can I eat?” and we’d go through the menu with them and say “If you take off this, then it’s vegan.” The thing with all-vegan restaurants is…why not have a place where everyone can eat? That’s why I did this, so if you’re a vegan and you have a friend who isn’t a vegan, you can both come here and [the vegan] can feel confident that there’s an actual [vegan] menu, it’s not just, “Well, can you take that off?” The staff is trained to look for clues, [if you say,] “can I have this without cheese?” they will hand you the vegan menu.
Lorraine: You’ve got a bruschetta and several panini sandwiches on Ciabatta bread. Where do you get your bread?
Kevin: We get our bread made from a bakery and we have it brought here every day but it’s not baked when it comes, it’s pre-baked. So we bake all of our bread here in our oven throughout the day, that’s why it’s so fresh. A lot of restaurants get it in the morning freshly baked and by the end of the day, it’s not fresh anymore. We bake it all day long. Ciabatta bread does not have egg in it, that’s why it has such a light flavor.
Our pastas don’t have egg in them, except for the fettuccine, so we can’t do a [vegan] fettuccine, but we can do a spaghetti, a capellini and we can do a penne and all those don’t have egg in them, so those are vegan. Instead of a pomodoro sauce, which has cheese in it or a ragu sauce which has meat in it, we can do a marinara sauce and suddenly there’s a complete vegan dish.
Lorraine: Rosti does a cheese-less pizza with choice of toppings. Why did you choose not to use soy cheese?
Kevin: I bombarded my vendor to get me the number one product at the vegan convention. I read on the blogs that people will freak out and come for miles around if you sell it and I got the cheese and I threw it on a pizza and I just didn’t like it. And that’s the struggle that I always have, serving something that I don’t like, even though other people like it. I’m not the kind of restaurant owner that doesn’t want people to eat what they want; I want people to change their food. I want them to change their pasta dish. If they don’t like mushrooms, go ahead, I don’t care. But I really don’t want to serve something that I don’t think is good. I don’t want to serve something that I don’t stand behind. I only want to put our best foot forward. With our vegan menu, I can, because every one of those items is made by us. It’s something I can stand behind. And I like it.
Lorraine: Do you have plans to expand the vegan menu and does it change with the seasons?
Kevin: We have some seasonality; we have some raviolis that change; we have an artichoke ravioli and a butternut squash ravioli running right now. In the winter, we’re going to have a wild mushroom ravioli. We have a sweet corn ravioli in the summer. We have new things coming all the time, but our base, core menu changes about every two years.
Lorraine: How does the vegan menu work in the kitchen?
Kevin: We have a pretty precise system on our computers. If you want a Veggie Chopped Light, there’s a button – “Vegan Menu Veggie Chopped Light” on the computer that tells the kitchen, “Don’t make a Turkey Chopped Light and hold the turkey, it says Veggie Chopped Light.” And there are pictures and recipes on the oven for everything we do. So if there’s a salad they haven’t made in a while, they can look at it and reference it and get the run-down on what’s in it and get a picture of what it’s supposed to look like.
Lorraine: Gratitude Gourmet readers have told us that they are very interested in wine pairing. Meat eaters have the basic rules: red wine for meat, white for chicken and fish. What types of wines would a vegan consider when eating at Rosti?
Kevin: We don’t serve wine in the Santa Monica store, but we do allow people to bring their own and there’s no corkage fee. You come here on a Friday night or even tonight [Sunday] and you’ll see people here with their wine. We have groups that come here every Friday night with three or four bottles of wine and they just camp out and eat pasta; it’s really neat. It’s more of a family-style restaurant here and that’s our niche and I like our niche. The one in Encino [serves wine and] is more of a sit-down restaurant, it’s a lot bigger, it’s almost twice the size and it’s not more formal but it’s definitely more of a dinner house.
With our marinara sauce, a red wine would be great. But not something too heavy, so I wouldn’t go with a Cabernet or a strong Malbec. If we’re going to talk about Italian wines, since we’re an Italian restaurant, a Merlot would go well; a Morello with lots of super Tuscan grapes. A Sangiovese would go fantastic. Sometimes a Chianti is nice, but many people don’t like Chiantis because they’re very dry and it’s got a lot of tannins in it. I would suggest a Sangiovese because it is a lot softer. If you’re going to do a pasta with an olive oil sauce, I think a Chardonnay would go well, a Pinot Grigio would go well. Another nice wine is a Malvasia, nice grapes that are crisp.
Now with salads, I think that crisp white wines are really good too. Vegetables or a sandwich with lots of vegetables on it: a very light Pinot Grigio. And that’s the thing about Italy, there are a lot of grapes out there that aren’t really well known, like Vernaccia wine [which is a] very nice, light, grape; a very traditional wine in Tuscany. There are lots of blends of grapes, Pinot gris grapes that go very well. I would also suggest a Zinfandel, because that’s a little bit spicy, has some spices in it.
I would suggest going online or going to your local wine store and looking for very crisp wines made from different grapes. Very affordable, too. You can get some great wines for $10 to eat with a salad.
I want everyone to know that we’re a Tuscan Kitchen, a Tuscan-style Italian casual restaurant. I haven’t been to Italy yet, but I went to the neighborhood trattorias in New York and really looked at what people are doing– not the big ones in Zagat – but the neighborhood ones that people love. We’re not going to be on the cover of the LA Times as a five-star restaurant. That’s not who we are. But if you want to take a casual stroll with your girlfriend and your new baby, you come to Rosti because it’s easy. You want to meet your folks and eat somewhere, you come to Rosti because it’s easy.”
After the Q&A, Kevin ordered a tasting of his favorites from the vegan menu. We started with the Ciabatta bread with Rosti’s own olive oil which they sell at the restaurant. It’s a light but very flavorful oil that was nicely soaked up with the bread, which had a great chewy crust.
Kevin asked me to sample the lentil soup, of which he is justly proud. It’s a sweet, filling soup with celery and carrots and was the perfect starter on a cold, drizzly afternoon by the ocean.
All of Rosti’s vegetables come from a local farm in Encino and the proof of their freshness is on the plate.
The roasted beet and apple salad with chopped nuts was the perfect combination of tart and sweet and crunchy. I have to admit I never liked beets until I tried that salad, so Rosti’s pairing has made me a convert. This is a must-order for any visit. The Grilled Vegetable salad (also on the regular menu with goat cheese) has a nice variety of fresh vegetables tossed in a vinaigrette that isn’t too tangy or masks the taste of the veggies.
The Rigatoni pasta with roasted peppers was made vegan by simply removing the sausage, and you won’t miss it because the peppers are fresh and sweet and give weight to the dish. The Penne Puttanesca pasta is made with Kalamata olives that are flavorful but don’t dominate. My favorite of the pastas was the butternut squash ravioli. Normally served on the regular menu with a butter sauce, it is still delicious on its own. Vegans can order it with the sauce of their choice. I dipped it into the marinara sauce. It was hard to be polite and share it with my fellow diners.
Kevin’s vision for Rosti Tuscan Kitchen is a family-style restaurant, but his pastas aren’t drowned in a heavy, generic Italian sauce that often doubles as pizza sauce in small Italian restaurants. Both of the red pastas we tried – the Puttanesca and the Rigatoni’s Marinara each had a distinctive flavor and neither was heavy.
As someone who is not a vegan, but trying to adopt more vegan foods into my life, I must admit that I found it strange at first not to eat cheese at an Italian restaurant, but the flavors were so interesting and, to my taste buds, new, that I forgot all about it. What better way to introduce vegan food to a non-vegan than at an Italian restaurant?
For more information on Kevin Goldfein’s Rosti Tuscan Kitchen restaurants in Santa Monica and Encino, featuring the all-new vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free menus, visit the website at http://www.rostituscankitchen.com/VeganMenu.pdf