Chefs Georgi Yaneff and Gianluca Maita transplant authentic Italian recipes to Santa Monica

By Jessica Koslow

A real-deal Italian pizza: mozzarella, pistachio, mortadella and shaved parmesan
Photo by Ryan Tanaka

Pistachio pizza? That addictive little green nut is not an ingredient you’d think should top a pizza but, in fact, it’s very popular in Sicily. And chef/owner Georgi Yaneff aims to bring a taste of Sicily to Santa Monica with O+O Sicilian Kitchen & Bar.

There are a few reasons for the name O+O. The first is the location, which is at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Olympic Drive. The second is that many of the menu items end in O: puppetto (meatballs), crudo (raw fish) and forno (pizzas), to name a few. And the third is that many of these dishes are round.

Catchy name aside, the real draw of O+O is the food. Yaneff is serious about Sicily — so serious that he handpicked a chef, Gianluca Maita, from the southern tip of Sicily. Maita moved to Los Angeles, with his mother and grandmother’s recipes in tow, for O+O.

And Maita is loving his new life. The weather in Santa Monica is pretty similar to Sicily’s, and so is what’s growing, which is what makes Sicilian food such a perfect fit for California.

“Most of the Sicilian food staples are California food staples: pistachio, blood orange, tomato, artichoke, olive. What’s growing great in Sicily is here as well, even the prickly pear. All the ingredients you need to make good Sicilian food you have here, and they are amazing as well,” says Yaneff.

“Sicilian cuisine is simple,” he continues. “You just count on good ingredients” — a lesson he learned from his grandmother, who taught him how to cook.

Fresh produce is aplenty in Santa Monica. It’s a town where you can try three to four dozen tomatoes to find the right one for your pizza, which is what Yaneff and Maita did. It’s a neighborhood where after you’ve worked and traveled around the world, you might want to open up a restaurant of your own.

After living in London for five years, Yaneff began to miss Santa Monica: the weather, the atmosphere, the beach.

“It’s my kind of town,” says Yaneff, who was born in Bulgaria.

So he began looking for a space with his business partners.

When he found 1705 Ocean Ave., he knew he had struck culinary gold. O+O is on the same strip as HB Daisy, formerly Joan’s on Third, across from the Santa Monica Pier and down the street from a handful of new restaurants popping up along Ocean Avenue.

Construction started this past summer, and doors opened for lunch and dinner on Nov. 18.

“Before we opened, locals would say, ‘My grandma is from Sicily. I can’t wait to try your food,’” says Yaneff. “There’s not a lot of authentic Sicilian food in L.A.”

Yaneff says his restaurant has numerous repeat customers, sometimes who come in as much as three times a day — especially the residents of The Waverly, the condominium surrounding the restaurant.

When Yaneff first decided to serve Sicilian food in Santa Monica, he spent six months going around L.A. researching what other restaurants were doing.

“Most places have Americanized pizzas,” he says. “There’s not much traditional pizza. There’s good pizza in L.A., but we want to do the best pizza in town.”

So he bought an authentic stone oven and spent a couple of months perfecting their dough recipe, brought here from Italy.

O+O is Yaneff’s second restaurant. He still owns a small seafood restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood of London.

This project, however, brings a whole new level of personal responsibility.

“It’s 24/7,” says Yaneff. “Since March, I have not left town for more than two days.”

But there’s no other way he’d rather spend his time.

“I studied journalism,” Yaneff says, “but after high school, I realized it wasn’t something where I could be myself. With cooking, I can be myself. When I was a cook, all my friends had more secure jobs and made more money, but I was happy. That was the most important thing. What I am doing makes me happy. I don’t feel like it’s work. I’m just enjoying it.”

And there’s so much to enjoy about O+O: sitting on the outdoor patio; staring out at Tongva Park; sipping an Italian spirit like Cynar, an artichoke-inspired liqueur, Disaronno, Galliano or Campari.

“I love to cook,” Yaneff says. “It’s the place where I feel most comfortable. On days off, I relax and cook something at home with friends. It’s my hobby. I turned my hobby into a career.”

O+O Sicilian Kitchen & Bar, 1705 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica (424) 272-8700