On any given morning, you’ll find Giovanni Bolla in his daughter Isabelle’s Encino kitchen. He moves swiftly and deliberately, rarely breaking his focus—almost like a pharmacist mixing lifesaving drugs. But the 71-year-old is making a dessert, albeit one that may have saved his life.
Giovanni’s Tiramisu is not your average overly sweet, runny version. His creation is a fluffy, flavorful concoction with—and herein lies the distinction—the perfect consistency. It is firm, with the perfect ratio of cake to pudding. “Everything must be done correctly. Nothing is rushed,” Giovanni shares in his heavy Italian accent. He is oblivious to visitors as he dips the ladyfingers in coffee, layers them in a rectangular cake pan, carefully spoons on the egg/mascarpone mixture, and pipes on a pretty design with a pastry bag before topping it off with cocoa powder.
“Yes, there is a secret ingredient,” he chuckles, “but I won’t tell you what it is.” Giovanni is smiling a lot these days after some tumultuous times, which included a few weeks when he was homeless. At one time, though—and he really wants you to know this—he was on top. Giovanni, you see, used to be a caterer to the stars, tossing elegant soirees for Hollywood A-listers ranging from Rod Stewart to Ella Fitzgerald.
Giovanni was born in a small town called Asti, in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, known primarily for Asti Spumante sparkling wine. He grew up watching his mom bottle and preserve Italian delicacies like layered anchovies and white truffles. His was a family of foodies before that term even existed. He began working in the kitchen at the age of 13, and took on his first job cooking on cruise ships at the age of 17. Educated in fine hotel and restaurant management in Switzerland and Italy—“hotel school,” as Giovanni puts it—he graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Europe. In 1969, at the age of 21, he emigrated to the U.S. and just days after arriving, started working as the maître d’ at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He quickly ascended the ladder, with more high-level jobs at posh hotels, country clubs and eateries, including one as the assistant food and beverage director for the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Finally, the time seemed right to branch out on his own, and in 1978 Giovanni kicked off Bolla’s International Catering Company. The firm took off and soon Giovanni was catering parties for Hollywood’s elite, feeding everyone from Jane Seymour to Richard Burton. As part of his catering package, Giovanni would bring photographers in to shoot his events, and today he has stacks of meticulously kept photo albums, complete with newspaper clippings detailing his elaborate menus.
Sit down with him and the stories come rapid-fire. “One time it was 108 degrees and I was catering a dinner for 600 on the lawn at Pickfair in Beverly Hills. I had to bring in ice and chill each plate of crab legs and shrimp and then remove the ice when the guests sat down. And then for dessert on this hot night—of all things—it was Baked Alaska with sparklers on top!”
The photos showcase Giovanni’s over-the-top style: gigantic radicchio platters, fettuccine with caviar, artfully arranged buffet tables stacked 3 feet high, towers of cream puff pastries adorning Christmas tree-like towers. “It was all very grand,” he reflects. “They just don’t do it like that anymore.”
He says business came to a screeching halt after the 2008 recession. Then there were the personal blows. Giovanni’s first wife and eldest child both died of breast cancer.
Ultimately, he would end up with a much younger woman. The couple had two children. With his new wife working as a nurse, they decided that it made sense for Giovanni to be a stay-at-home dad. “I’m 30 years older than she is and ultimately, I thought, she could take care of me.” But things got rocky and the two divorced. Giovanni moved out, and for a few weeks lived in his truck. Then he moved in with a neighbor for a few months as he tried to figure out a plan. Getting back into the biz, as it turns out, was not easy. A decade had gone by, and fancy was out. “These days, people don’t even eat with a knife and a fork,” Giovanni, a stickler for manners, exclaims.
“He was really struggling,” recalls daughter Isabelle Moline. “Everything had changed, and so many of his business contacts—not to mention his friends—had died. Like so many older people, he was completely isolated.”
Isabelle, who had been living with her husband in Spain, decided she needed to move back to LA. “With my older sister gone and his two other children so young, I’m really all he has. And it was just super stressful trying to help but being so far away,” she notes.
The couple rented a small home off Burbank Boulevard and helped Giovanni find a small studio apartment nearby. Still unresolved: Where could Giovanni get work?
The solution came out of nowhere this past summer. It was Isabelle’s 27th birthday and she was feeling festive. She asked Giovanni to make her some tiramisu. “We went grocery shopping and bought all this stuff and my dad, who is used to cooking in large batches, made five trays! I thought, what am I gonna do with all this tiramisu?” She gave some to neighbors and they raved. Much to the chef’s delight, some even asked for more. Isabelle put some photos on Facebook and “the next morning I woke up and I had nearly 800 notifications. I was shocked!”
Isabelle, who works in marketing, felt they were onto something. She posted pictures of the dessert on Nextdoor and on a private women’s Facebook group that she belongs to. She shared a bit about her dad’s much-ballyhooed past and his more recent challenges, and then touted his tiramisu. She also put a shout-out to anyone who “has an event or a sweet tooth and would like a full tiramisu cake.”
Much to Isabelle’s surprise, the orders started coming in. Like any 20-something working in digital marketing, she knew exactly what to do. She quickly launched a website and Instagram account, posting cute shots of her dad in the kitchen and delivering his dessert to locals. “He had absolutely no internet experience. At first, I had to print out driving directions but then I taught him how to use Google Maps. The word just spread. We’ve even had some of his old customers hear about it, email us and order!” Isabelle quips.
“The money is great; he needs it. But honestly the best thing about it is the connection. He is out and about and conversing with people. He drops off the tiramisu and has conversations with his customers. Sometimes they hug him and tell him how much they love his dessert. They go back and forth about things. It’s very social. Before, he was lacking that human connection,” she explains.
With the business officially up and running, now the duo has turned their attention to making some modern tweaks. At Isabelle’s direction, the business just got officially licensed and plans are underway for a food truck, serving tiramisu and espresso. Giovanni has even come up with a gluten-free version of the dessert.
Newly energized and with his daughter by his side, Giovanni has even returned to some of his grand old ways of thinking. “I feel like we need something like a board of advisors or director, maybe 10 people or so, to really go at it in all directions with different areas of expertise. It is so much about the branding these days,” he says.
Isabelle can’t contain her giggles on this one. “Let’s take it one step at a time, Dad,” she laughs, with a discernable mixture of happiness and relief.
Swanky supper club, anyone?