The husband and wife team behind Piccolo Ritrovo find strength in family and food
By Jessica Koslow
It’s easy to forget, as you bite into a delicious piece of pizza margherita or a tasty bite of gnocchi al pesto, that every restaurant has a story. Many are tales of triumph, starring real people powered by incredible persistence and passion.
This is definitely the case with Italian eatery Ritrovo, opening this month in the old Pinkberry location on Seabluff Drive next to Playa Vista’s Concert Park.
The couple behind the scenes of this new spot is Ivan Kodeh and his wife Deva, who fell in love as teens in the south of France. Deva, a Santa Monica native whose parents are French, spent every summer growing up in France. While still a senior at Samohi, Deva met Ivan and decided to stay in France after graduation.
Now, the inseparable duo own Piccolo Ritrovo in Pacific Palisades and Mariners Cafe in Marina del Rey. Yet only three years ago, life didn’t look so rosy.
“After we met, we traveled around Africa and decided to open a restaurant in Cameroon,” says Deva. “But we were way too young. Then we came back to the south of France and opened a restaurant with Ivan’s family in a city next to Saint-Tropez. That didn’t work. We were only 21 at this point. Next we went to the French Alps, found jobs and we were doing well financially.”
On vacation in Africa, the couple traveled to Zanzibar, an island chain in Tanzania. They instantly felt at home. So they started looking for property, and with the help of family, they bought some land and started building an empire over the next 10 years.
“We thought we would spend the rest of our lives there,” says Deva.
Unfortunately, fate was not in their hands, and what happened next would change Ivan, Deva and their two children’s lives forever.
“One day some foreigners asked to buy our place for $5 million,” says Ivan.
Their property now consisted of two hotels with 32 rooms, two restaurants (including a Thai-sushi fusion), a swimming pool, diving center, spa and school.
The couple declined the offer, but the businessmen went over their heads with a bribe to government officials.
“One morning, the police came to get Ivan and put him in jail. They kept the kids hostage, even Ivan’s 70-year-old mom,” Deva says, becoming visibly emotional.
“I had no food, and I was nursing,” she adds.
The harrowing ordeal lasted a few weeks before Deva could secure an attorney, and the American ambassador came to their aid.
The couple lost all of their assets, and Ivan’s reputation was ruined. The government planted guns and drugs in his home, labeling him a wanted man.
With the help of friends in the Tanzania government, the family made it safely to Santa Monica, landing in the home of Deva’s twin sister. They had to start from ground zero.
For the next six months, Deva worked 12-hour days at Sonoma Wine Garden in Santa Monica, saving every penny. Ivan spent his days searching for a way back into the restaurant industry.
In 2015, they opened Mariners Cafe in Marina del Rey, a café in an apartment complex with 3,000 tenants.
The next year, along with friend-partners, they took over Piccolo Ritrovo in Pacific Palisades.
“I used to eat at Jacopo’s Pizzeria, the restaurant that was at that location before,” says Deva. “I would watch them flip pizzas through the glass window.”
Now, they’re looking to make their culinary mark closer to home.
The couple lives in Playa Vista, as does their Ritrovo partner, Will Kirby, a successful restaurant entrepreneur (Geisha House, Big Wangs). Their kids go to school together, and their families hang out on weekends at Icon Park.
The menu at this new location of Ritrovo in Playa Vista will be similar to Piccolo Ritrovo, except with less items. They will add sandwiches, special weekly menus for employees in the area, takeout and delivery, and eventually brunch service.
The restaurant seats 40, and another 40 can sit on the outside patio.
Not only is the couple prepping their third restaurant for its grand opening in November, but they welcomed their third daughter nine months ago.
“We don’t stop,” says Deva, “We don’t give up. We can’t. It’s not who we are. They took everything away from us. But they can’t take away our experience. This whole experience has made us better and stronger.”
Deva continues, excitedly: “Everybody is calling our other two restaurants to see when we open. It’s pressure, but good pressure.”
“Family,” says Deva. “This is what makes us move forward.”