A hand-cranked, stainless steel pasta machine on a sturdy wooden table glimmers in the sun. Nearby, a chef wields a wooden rolling pin lined with ridges to cut spaghetti from fresh sheets of pasta. This setup would be ambitious anywhere, but imagine it outdoors at Warner Center Park in Woodland Hills. People walk by and stop to look at the cooking demonstration taking place next to a large silver truck. It looks like it could be a shoot for the Food Network. But for chef Juan Torres, this is just a day at work as owner of the Pasta Selvatica food truck.
Juan isn’t your average food truck operator. He is a skilled pasta maker who worked at the late, great Italian restaurant Sotto on Pico Boulevard before opening the neighborhood eatery Manhattan House in Manhattan Beach. As it was closing down in April—unable to bounce back from the pandemic—he launched the truck. His mindset at the time was pretty simple: “I’ve been working in a kitchen for 12 years,” Juan says. “Now I have to figure out how to take the kitchen with me.”
Owning a food truck came from a desire for full control. “Losing Manhattan House was really hard for me,” Juan says. “It was my home for so many years, and losing it because of something that I couldn’t control was an even harder pill to swallow.” Referencing the repeated COVID shutdowns, he adds, “It completely destroyed us. Now no one tells me when to shut my business.”
For Juan, going mobile with Pasta Selvatica has endless benefits. “Everything is possible now,” he says. “I can cook anywhere I want. If a location doesn’t work, I move on to another. That’s something you can’t do with a restaurant.” Although Juan has chosen to park at the same spot every day (rather than roam the Valley), he embraces his food truck’s fluid nature. After all, Selvatica means “wild” in Italian.
Juan could have focused on Inglewood, where he lives, but he saw a pasta opportunity in the West Valley. “No restaurants or food trucks in a 10-mile-radius are doing what I’m doing, and I wanted to stand out,” he says.
The truck’s blackboard menu sports sayings like “Pasta la vista, baby” and “Nothing is impastable,” which captures Juan’s can-do attitude. He frequently drives the truck through traffic with his cousin, Johnny Velez, who also cooked at Sotto, and one other employee. His wife, Monique, works nearby at Warner Center and helps when she can get away.
“What needs to shine in a pasta dish is the pasta itself,” Juan says. He balances “salt, fat, starch and acidity” in his preparations conducive to seasonal updates. Tagliatelle and gnocchi were both top sellers at Manhattan House, so no surprise they are on the menu. But the rest of it is new. Juan tosses Dungeness crab ravioli with spring peas, pancetta, and luxurious butter Parm sauce. Lasagna verde is another standout, featuring spinach pasta layered with ricotta, cream, mozzarella and Parm.
To round out Pasta Selvatica’s menu, Juan opted for crowd pleasers like braised pork meatballs, mozzarella sticks, and cannoli. There are also daily specials up on the blackboard.
Juan is happy to take a break from brick-and-mortar restaurants until landlords stop asking for such high rents. He’s fully committed to mobile food service and hopes to add a wood-burning pizza oven by the end of 2022. He’s also considering expansion. “If all goes well, I will definitely add a pasta truck to the streets of Joshua Tree,” Juan says. Fresh pasta from a truck in the high desert? Wild!
You’ll find the Pasta Selvatica truck parked at 5800 Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Woodland Hills. Follow @pastaselvatica.
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