This true-blue Italian chef hailing from Abruzzo in Italy is bringing the regional flavours of the world’s most popular cuisine to Mumbai.
What sort of food did you eat while growing up? What dishes did you love as a child?
It was basically very traditional regional food, and 90 percent of it was homemade, from bread to pasta, meat, cold cuts, wine, olive oil, etc. I was lucky enough to grow in a farm environment and enjoy ‘non-processed’ food for many years.
When did you decide to become a chef? What inspired you?
As mentioned before, I grew up on a farm. My mother’s family was composed of five female sisters and my grandmother, so there was always something going on in the kitchen. They’re all very passionate about food, especially my mother, who I still consider a much better than chef that I would ever be. She taught me and still teaches me so many things, so that environment had a huge impact on my professional life choice.
How would you sum up your culinary philosophy?
As can be easily guessed from my background, my culinary philosophy is based on traditional and comfort food. During my career around the globe, I gave a modern twist to my dishes especially in the presentation, but always keeping them as traditional as possible — creating the right balance and harmony between eyes and mouth pleasure, which in my opinion is the most challenging task to achieve for a traditional chef.
What is the cuisine of Abruzzo, the region of Italy you come from, like? What are some of its specialities?
Abruzzo is unknown to most foreigners, but actually we are in the heart of Italy, with Gran Sasso, the highest massif in the Apennine Mountains on one side and the Adriatic Sea on the other. So we have a range of climates that allow us to have many kinds of products. The Abruzzo diet draws on pastoral, mountain and coastal cuisine. Staples include traditional bread, pasta, meat (mostly ovine), fresh catch fish, cheese, wine, oil, cold cuts, etc. We also have some worldwide food excellence in ingredients such as Navelli saffron, Vasto ventricina, Sulmona confetti and red garlic, Altino sweet paprika and also a few from my town, Atri, such as pecorino cheese, licorice and black chicken.
Some of our famous regional dishes are arrosticini, virtu soup, chitarra teramana, timballo, lamb cac e ov, pecora a la callara, porchetta, caggionetti and many more.
Is there a culinary experience that made a deep impact on you or influenced you as a chef?
Every experience, good or bad, has something to teach us. All of our experiences have an influence on us and on our life decisions. They allow us to grow as a person or, in this case, as a chef.
What is your vision and concept for Celini?
My culinary vision is to offer traditional food to our guests with a touch of modern presentation when possible, using the best products available in the market and in many cases products that have been imported or customised especially for us. This is exactly what we are best at and we are offering it at Celini.
What signature dishes have you brought to the new menu at Celini? Any regional Italian delicacies to look forward to?
We have several signature dishes on the menu and most of our dishes are regional delicacies, like baby spinach salad, tomato tartare and burrata (which is a typical cheese from Apulia), polenta millefeuille, spaghetti aglio, olio e pepperoncino with toasted breadcrumb and lamb meatball linguine which are typical from Abruzzo, amatriciana Lazio, ossobuco with saffron risotto from Milan, seabass Livornese from Tuscany, tiramisu from the Venice area or cassata from Sicily and so on…
How important is wine pairing to the dining experience at Celini?
Pairing wine is important and not only in Celini or with Italian food in my opinion. The concept behind it is that certain elements, such as texture and flavor, in both wine and food react differently to each other, and finding the right combination of these elements can enhance the taste of both and make the entire dining experience more enjoyable.
How often are you planning to refresh the menu at Celini?
We plan to refresh the menu every three-four months based on guest preferences, new trends and product availability.
What is your favourite Indian dish?
There are quite a few Indian dishes I like. If I had to pick some of them I would say: palak paneer, malai broccoli, rajma, lamb rogan josh, dal makhani, garlic naan, lachcha paratha, butter chicken, biryani and many more….Let’s just say that there are very few dishes I don’t enjoy!
What do you like most about living and working in India?
Food…without a doubt.
How well do Indian diners understand the intricacies of Italian food?
Actually, this is a difficult topic to deal with. There are guests who understand Italian cuisine pretty well and when they visit the restaurant, they leave it all on me to offer them traditional and authentic Italian food.
At the other end, there are still many people who come to eat in a Italian restaurant expecting the food to be very strong in flavours, with many spices, etc, more similar to Indian cuisine rather than real Italian. I do understand that for many people Italian food can be bland compared to the local cuisine, but asking for super spicy food, jalapeno, pink sauce, etc, just gives them a meal experience rather than a real Italian food experience.
My suggestion is: if you go to a speciality restaurant, be it Italian, Chinese or French, simply enjoy the culinary trip that the chef has worked on and forget what you are used to eating every day — only then can one really appreciate a different cuisine.
What are some of your favourite Italian dishes and wines?
I’m from Abruzzo, so definitely regional dishes such as timballo, arrosticini, cif e ciaf, porchetta and basically all the other food from Abruzzo, but I also enjoy food from other regions such as pizza (both Naples and Rome style), lasagna, ossobuco, cannelloni, ravioli, tortellini and many more.
About wines, I again pick some of my regional wines: montepulciano d’abruzzo, cerasuolo, trebbiano d’abruzzo, pecorino, cococciola — much underrated abroad, but definitely nothing to envy when compared with the most noble and well-known Italian wines.