As part our Grazie series we’re taking a closer look at the most exciting artists, designers, chefs and creatives inspired by Italian style. In 2012, Gabriele Vitali left a job in finance to open his London restaurant Leggero – the only entirely gluten-free Italian restaurant in the UK. Since opening under the name of La Polenteria, the restaurant has gone from strength to strength, putting a bold new twist on classic Italian recipes. We spoke to Gabriele about changing direction, viewing food as an art form and the challenges of creating traditional Italian food without traditional ingredients.
Hi Gabriele. Can you tell us about yourself and what you do?
After my studies I was lucky enough to fulfill my dream, working in investment banking in London. I spent 11 years at BNP Paribas, and in 2012 I started studying again - this time to prepare myself to manage my own company, which eventually became La Polenteria. Despite zero experience in food and hospitality I decided to embark on this new journey, which proved to be much tougher than expected. At the start I made a countless number of mistakes, now the good news is that I am at least able to count the number of mistakes I make!
Today I count on a great team who are able to help run the restaurant; compared to the past where I worked countless hours in the restaurant both as waiter and kitchen porter. I now spend more time steering the company in the right direction, and I’m currently looking to open a second restaurant.
What are your earliest memories of food and cooking?
My memories date back to me as a very young little scamp watching my grandma’s cooking – a way of preserving culinary traditions that have been passed down through the generations. Awesome cakes, mainly fruit tarte, and even more awesome handmade agnolotti (filled pasta, similar to ravioli) or Polenta.
One day I decided to take an active part in the process, helping to stir the Polenta and counting the Agnolotti – this preparation was almost a ritual. So to me, like many people in Italy, food is linked to tradition, traditional recipes and time spent together.
You left a job in finance to open your restaurant. What inspired you to change your direction?
I had a great career in banking, full of satisfaction and achievements, and I needed a new challenge. The original plan was to come back to banking after studying and look after the restaurant from the outside, but it worked out that I became 100% focused on the restaurant. Today I am keen to believe that the inspiration was a mix between foolishness, ambition, willingness to prove myself and wanting to push myself outside of my comfort zone, which at that time was banking.
Why open a gluten-free restaurant? What challenges did you face?
When La Polenteria opened in January 2014, we had absolutely no idea of the importance of being gluten-free. I was aware Polenta was naturally gluten-free but I couldn’t imagine building a business around this. However, we started seeing more and more people coming in asking for gluten-free food - I could really see in their eyes a kind of desperation mixed with hope at the idea of having found a place to eat freely. In May 2015 we finally decided to go 100% gluten-free and we started working to get the certification from the Coeliac UK Association.
There were many challenges. Traditional Italian cooking is based on gluten - pizza, pasta, bread, plus all the dishes that include flour. So there was a cultural challenge for ourselves, getting used to the idea of making traditional Italian food without gluten. Today we are very proud to have achieved great quality results, to a point that it is hard to tell that our pasta or bread are gluten-free.
There were also technical challenges. Treating gluten free flour is not easy, so our first pasta trials were thick and a bit sour, and they crumbled as soon as they were put in boiling water. I can remember I ate lasagna for lunch for 14 days in a row because we could not find the right recipe.
How is gluten free food perceived in Italy? Would it be harder to open a gluten free restaurant there than in London?
I know that gluten-free food is becoming more popular in Italy, so I would not be surprised if a 100% gluten-free restaurant opened in the near future. I believe that Italy is a bit more of a complicated environment to make it work. At the moment I don't see Italy as a place where we could open a restaurant like Leggero.
Tell us about some of your favourite recipes and dishes.
In regards to Leggero’s menu, I love the courgette burger, lamb meatballs, our ravioli and cheesecake. Broadly speaking, I recently changed my diet quite dramatically, moving towards fruit, fresh fruit smoothies and vegetables, so what I am more attracted to are simple ingredients, and I look for new vegetables and different combinations of those. I am not a huge pasta or pizza eater, so I might be defined as an atypical Italian.
The Italian food culture is loved around the world. What do you think makes Italian food and the Italian dining experience so special?
Flavour, ingredients, variety, taste and texture. We are lucky enough to live in a country kissed by the sun and this is one of the factors that makes it so special. On top of that there are so many different environments, from sea to hills to mountains, to flat lands where all kind of food can grow. We have so many different products, with so many flavours that I would not be able to taste them all in an entire lifetime. That’s an unbeatable source of value and all these together make Italian food special.
Who are your favourite chefs, artists and photographers?
My favourite artists are Miro, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Turner and Botticelli. Working with food is certainly an art, one which I have learned to admire, respect and trust. My years working with the restaurant have taught me that I undervalued the difficulty of cooking and consistently delivering the same level of quality. Every dish brought to a table is an artwork, a painting or even a sculpture; I prefer to associate the kitchen to paintings and sculpture so the final decorations of a dish remind me of Miro.
We learned to give importance to both presentation and colours with our food, and before starting any dish I stop to enjoy the presentation, the positioning and the quantity of each ingredient, how it has been placed and if the ingredients are well proportioned. Please the eyes first, the palate afterwards.