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Rex Il Ristorante's Mauro Vincenti Dies

Gourmets: Downtown restaurateur, known for his good-natured zeal for fine cuisine, succumbs to cancer at age 53.

August 15, 1996|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mauro Vincenti, 53, the pioneering owner of Rex il Ristorante in downtown Los Angeles and for almost 20 years one of the city's most passionate, knowledgeable and indefatigable champions of Italian cuisine, died Wednesday of cancer.

Vincenti had surgery for colon cancer two years ago and began suffering anew early this year when the cancer spread to his pancreas and liver. He died at his home in Toluca Lake.

Vincenti had a keen sense of aesthetics, both on and off the plate. He not only helped introduce Los Angeles to contemporary Italian cooking, he also helped restore the Oviatt Building, the 1928 Art Deco masterpiece in which he launched Rex.

Rex became such a showpiece that it was used for many weddings, big Hollywood parties and as a set in several films, most notably as the elegant restaurant to which billionaire Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts by limousine in "Pretty Woman."

Six feet tall, well over 200 pounds, a larger-than-life, benevolent bear of a man, Vincenti was loved and admired throughout the restaurant community. He was appreciated in particular for his zealous pursuit of the very best natural food products, for his remarkably scholarly interest in the history of food, and for his fierce but good-natured determination to share his knowledge and his bounty with his friends, customers and fellow gastronomes.

The pappa al pomodoro on the menu at his more casual restaurant, Alto Palato in West Hollywood, for example, is based on a recipe for a 16th century Tuscan porridge that Vincenti came across in an old cookbook. He frequently urged other restaurateurs to make similar forays--and to share his zeal for his latest discovery: a great prosciutto or parmigiano or pasta or olive oil.

Although not a chef himself, Vincenti scoured Italy looking for chefs to bring to Rex--and to recommend to his restaurateur friends. In 1988, he recruited four well-known chefs in France to take turns cooking at Fennel, a French bistro he opened in Santa Monica.

Piero Selvaggio of Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica, widely regarded as the best Italian restaurant in the country, was in many ways Vincenti's primary competitor. But the two were close friends, and he regarded Vincenti as "my encyclopedia of food . . . a visionary with a special place in history."

Many in the food world shared this view.

"He was already doing on his own what we in the American Institute of Wine and Food were talking about doing when we started in 1981," said Michael McCarty, whose Michael's restaurant in Santa Monica helped define a new "California cuisine" when it opened in 1979.

"He knew that gastronomy is a subject worthy of serious study," McCarty said, "and that it has connections to literature and the other arts--that food is more than just, 'Hey, I'm hungry. Let's eat something good.' "

Wolfgang Puck, one of the nation's best (and best-known) chefs, who opened Spago about the same time that Vincenti opened Rex, said he "never saw any restaurant owner, regardless of nationality, who knew so much about food and could communicate what he knew as well as Mauro did. He would have been a great teacher."

That's what Vincenti wanted to be when he was a college student in Rome--a teacher of Italian literature. But his brother was a theater director, and--intrigued by show business--Vincenti went into the movie business instead. Then he married an American woman he met in Rome, and when the Italian lira fell in the mid-1970s, they moved to the United States.

Vincenti, whose father had been a food buyer for hospitals in Rome, opened Mauro's restaurant, sandwiched among automobile dealerships in Glendale, where his wife's brother lived. Four years later, after the breakup of his marriage, he and Gary Freedman, his partner, lawyer and friend, took over the Oviatt Building, a landmark then filled with cobwebs. With exquisite and expensive taste, Vincenti turned what had been one of the country's finest men's stores into Rex, a stunningly grand restaurant subtly patterned after an Italian luxury liner from the 1930s.

"Rex was the first true Roman restaurant in this country at that level," Selvaggio said.

Before Rex, most Italian restaurant food in the United States was either "Continental" (i.e., pseudo-French) or a Neapolitan-style cooking, heavy on the tomato sauce and generally served in surroundings that seemed more like a diner than a ristorante. Vincenti blended the finest regional ingredients, fresh from Italy, with a sensibility that encompassed both refinement and rusticity and presented it in a formal dining room presided over by tuxedoed waiters and captains.

Vincenti was rarely happier than when giving friends a tour of the back streets, side streets and little-known culinary and cultural sites of Rome or some hidden corner of the Italian countryside.

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