Neighborhood Flavor profiles the people behind the familiar restaurants, bars and food businesses of the Eastside
Los Feliz -- Trattoria Farfalla was John Borghetti's first restaurant. Growing up in an Italian family in Brazil, food was a big part of his upbringing. When the opportunity came up in the U.S., Borghetti created his own restaurant to serve his favorite flavors from home.
In a Q&A, John shares his experience -- which included working in Alaska and managing a Jack-in-the-Box in Los Angeles -- before opening his first restaurant in Los Feliz. As an added bonus, he shares his secret for making a favorite pasta marinara dish.
How long have you been in the restaurant business and how did you get started?
Since 1987! Farfalla Hillhurst opened in 1988, but the process started in 1987.
Restaurants were always a passion of mine growing up in an Italian family in the south of Brazil, constantly surrounded by cooking and love in the kitchen! We had a farm, so I was always invested in the process of "farm to table," literally. Even as a kid, I always thought the restaurant business – the social element that felt like a party every time – was extremely exciting. I loved the energy, so I dreamed that someday I would have enough money to open my own spot and feel that collective joy.
When I first came to the U.S., I arrived in Alaska and moved my way up from a busboy (excited to learn that I didn't actually have to drive a bus, my English was spotty) to a bellman and then to a server at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage. I learned the management/hospitality side of things there. When I came to LA, I became a manager at the Jack in the Box on 5th and Vermont. I continued to learn and hone my leadership skills there.
What's the story of the first restaurant you owned?
As a tour guide (I owned my own tour guide company before/how I saved up money to open Farfalla Hillhurst), I would drive around Los Feliz/Hillhurst Ave. thinking this would be an ideal neighborhood for my first Italian concept.
I always loved the Los Feliz area. There was a spot called The Pasta Shop on Hillhurst run by a lovely woman named Maria, who became a dear friend and mentor of mine. I told her about my dream of opening an Italian restaurant with fresh pasta and a wood-burning pizza oven in the area, and she hooked me up with my current landlord and original chef/partner. We put together the menu and the rest is history!
When we first opened it was half the size. Our first ever customer for lunch was Elmer Dills (a food critic for ABC radio/TV) who brought his own bottle of Dom Perignon – a signature of his. While we were under construction he kept stopping by to ask when we were opening! I’ll never forget watching him walk through the door. He gave us a hit review on the radio and from then on we had long lines for years as one of the original wood-burning pizza oven spots in L.A. Luckily we were able to expand/take over the spot next door one year later.
What is the best part of owning your own business?
When I feel that energy that I always loved and craved. It really is intoxicating (both of my kids who have worked for me agree!).
There is nothing like a busy Friday or Saturday night (pre COVID) – greeting regulars whose kids I have watched grow up. People go to restaurants to enjoy themselves and revel in the simple pleasures of good food and drink. This is my happy place!
Every restaurant I have owned has become a family. I have had employees with me for 30 plus years. Since day one. I can’t think of something more meaningful or special – the loyalty and friendships that have kept us afloat. I am very grateful.
What's the worst part?
It has gotten harder every year! Food costs and rents rising … COVID is an incredibly hard hit, obviously. We have to adapt to these changes and stay vigilant and creative.
The restaurant business has never been a secure and unchallenging business. Problems arise daily … it’s a journey indeed and you can’t let every stressor takeover. And … without fail, if something is going to break or you are going to lose electricity, it will be on a busy Friday night when then house is packed! In 32 years, I haven't had one day without a problem. It’s just the way it is. Nothing about it is easy, but I still love it for what it is.
What is your favorite item on the menu?
At Farfalla Hillhurst, the Insalata di Finocchi with fennel and string beans – I seek this strong kick of vinegar that I think every salad needs.
Also, our special Margherita Pizza with Mozzarella di Napoli delivers every time. Our pizza is thin crust, Milanese style. The Mozarella is creamy, but overall it is a light pizza that hits the spot.
Lastly, our Fusilli Tartufati pasta with artichokes, mushrooms and white wine topped with fresh, shaved ricotta cheese. It’s everything you want in a simple, but flavorful pasta.
Main answer: WINE! is that allowed? My biggest passion is wine. I can’t enjoy a meal unless it is accompanied by a great, red wine with acid.
Can you share a cooking tip?
I always cook for my family on Sunday evenings. It’s like my end of the week therapy. It is essential to open a nice bottle of bubbly (what I am drinking now: Franciacorta, an Italian version of Champagne) while cooking.
My secret is firstly, quality ingredients, and secondly, as I am sautéing the onions for my family’s favorite pasta marinara dish, is adding anchovies. They add salt/umami the dish needs and brings up all of the flavors.