The California Cook: Training day with the Lakers' Gary Vitti

Los Angeles Times

Gary Vitti is at home cooking dinner for a few friends. But you can't escape the feeling that he's got someplace else he'd rather be.

He loves to cook, no doubt about that. And he's good at it. But at this time of year, Vitti really ought to be sitting courtside at Staples Center as the Los Angeles Lakers battle for yet another National Basketball Assn. title.

Vitti is the team's long-time trainer, and if you don't recall his name (he tells a hilarious story, the punchline of which is, "Who the … is Gary Vitti?"), any Laker fan will surely recognize his face. He's the guy with the clipboard who has sat beside Pat Riley and Phil Jackson and every other Laker coach for going on 30 years.

He's tended the aches and pains of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, James Worthy and Kobe Bryant, among countless others. He was one of the first people Magic Johnson told he was HIV positive.

But right now, after one of the most snake-bit injury seasons in Laker history, he's spending June at home in Manhattan Beach. And tonight he's making pizza. And sautéed shrimp. And baby broccoli with burrata, ravioli stuffed with chanterelles, king salmon baked with herbs, and fresh berries topped with whipped cream. His wife, Martha, chips in a Brussels sprout salad with blue cheese and walnuts.

No one goes hungry at the Vitti house. And one good thing about the off-season: He can relax a little about his diet.

Vitti grew up in a food-loving first-generation Italian immigrant family in Connecticut. He started cooking for himself almost as soon as he started college but got more serious when he moved to Salt Lake City to get his master's in sports medicine. "I mean, I'm coming from 21/2 years [working] in New York, right?" he says. "I was used to good food, OK?"

He started by picking recipes out of the old "New York Times Cookbook" but got his greatest lessons from his mother. "I never had much luck with cookbooks. So if I was having trouble, I'd call my mom. She's one of those old country cooks. She'd say, 'You do a little of this and you add a little of that.' I'd say, 'Mom, come on, how much?' And she'd tell me, 'I don't know. You have to figure it out for yourself.'

"So that's what I did. It's all about enjoying the journey."

Vitti's kitchen is compact but well-organized. He moves quickly and purposefully, turning from one dish to the next.

"It's a really efficient kitchen, but only two people max can be in it at the same time, and they really have to be on the same page," he says. "Martha's the only one who can be in here with me, not even my mother-in-law."

There are also two outdoor cooking areas. On the second-story porch, just off the kitchen, there is a gas grill. In the background is a view of the Pacific. Downstairs on the patio is a gigantic outdoor kitchen, including a huge grill and a built-in refrigerator compartment, all in shining stainless steel.

"That's where we do most of our entertaining," he says. "When Martha's family comes over, we might have 25 people down there — and that's just the immediate family."

Vitti "works clean," in chef speak: Whenever he's done with a pan or an implement, he washes it, and he always has a towel over his shoulder for wiping down his work area.

But like most self-trained cooks, he has his quirks, not least of which is his pizza technique. It starts normally enough: He heats the pizza stone in the oven and stretches the dough on a wooden peel. But when it's time to bake, he pulls the hot, heavy stone from the oven, carries it over to the countertop and flips the dough on top. Then he trims the edges to fit, ladles on the sauce and toppings and carries it back to the oven to bake.

Weird, but there's no denying the pizza tastes good.

"That's something you've probably never seen before, right?" he says. "There is no intelligent reason to do that, but it works for me."

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