Alessandro Pavoni: La Dolce Vita
Celebrated chef Alessandro Pavoni of Crown Sydney's A'Mare talks of the simple truths that lie at the heart of good living.
“You feel like you are rich, even if you’re not.”
Chef Alessandro Pavoni is talking about a childhood spent in the mountain village of Pezzoro, between Lakes Iseo and Garda in Italy’s north.
With a population of barely a hundred, it truly was a ‘sweet life,’ largely unsupervised and free-ranging. He and his friends would explore the mountains, ride dirt bikes and build forts in the forest – the only proviso that they return when the church bells rang for lunch and dinner.
As he got older, long summer evenings were for getting dressed up to fare un’passagiata (take a stroll) along the lake and enjoy meals in restaurants among the grand villas and ancient castles, while winter was for snow sports on the nearby slopes.
It was a given that meals, aside from breakfast, usually just coffee and a biscuit or pastry taken on the run, were always eaten together, Alessandro says.
Left: Alessandro Pavoni; Right: Alessandro Pavoni cooking.
“In Italy, depending on your job, you might have a two- or three-hour break at lunch time, from school as well. Everybody would go home, my mum would have cooked the lunch and we’d sit down, always with a tablecloth, and have a meal – a little pasta, a secondo of fish or meat and vegetables, maybe dessert. After lunch, you might have a rest or nap or watch the news, then go back to work or school. So, there’s a family congregation around the food twice a day.”
On Sundays, the table would swell with the extended family. “My great-grandmother would sometimes cook tortelli di zucca – pasta stuffed with pumpkin – which was a three-day job, because first she’d talk to the vegetable supplier to find the best pumpkin, then she’d do the filling and hang it in a muslin cloth to dry out,” Alessandro says.
“Then very early on Sunday morning all the children and our parents would come and all help her to make the tortelli. The spirit and emotion that she could give to people through her food – I wanted to be able to do that.“
Left: Alessandro Pavoni; Right: Alessandro Pavoni
AN OFFER TOO GOOD TO REFUSE
Alessandro was just 12 years old when he informed his mother that he wanted to become a chef. Three years later, he went to study culinary arts at a nearby hospitality school and after graduation, worked at Ristorante Carlo Magno in the nearby town of Brescia, under Iginio Massari and Beppe Maffioli.
It wasn’t until he was 20 that Alessandro left Italy for the first time, honing his skills in Michelin-starred kitchens in France. Then came an offer “too good to refuse,” that saw him move to the other side of the world to work in Bermuda. But the siren song of love and other foreign lands called and in 2003, he crossed another ocean, this time accompanied by his future wife Anna, returning to her home country of Australia.
After four years as Executive Chef at Sydney’s Park Hyatt, Alessandro and Anna opened their first restaurant, Ormeggio at the Spit in 2009, almost immediately being awarded a coveted Chef Hat and acquiring a second just four years later. In 2014, they opened the casual Chiosco at Ormeggio, a “barefoot-friendly” BYO seaside trattoria, followed by fine diner a’Mare, at Crown Sydney in 2020.
So, after almost 20 years in his adopted country, what does Alessandro think is still misunderstand about Italian food? “A lot of the world think we are just about Chianti and pizza, but every region has different cuisines, different languages, different grapes and a different culture," he says. "It would be like driving from Thailand to Malaysia and seeing the differences. And there are so many historic influences - the French in Valle d’Aosta, the Spanish in the south and in Sicily, from North Africa.” Even within a single region such as Lombardy, which encompasses low and high alluvial plains and mountains, there can be distinct differences, Alessandro points out.
“In the north, there are the alpine pastures and they make cream, cheese and heavy food suitable to the cold areas, then you come down – we’re talking half an hour – and this fresh water system creates the lakes, which make a Mediterranean micro-climate and all of a sudden, the food is super-light and you have olive oil and capers and lemons.”
Rice too is a grown on the Lombardian plains, up to 200 varieties according to Alessandro, from Roma to his professed favourite, Carnaroli.
Like most of the world, Italian food has not escaped some global homogenisation, but Alessandro says he’s noticing restaurants and producers re-embracing the traditional.
“Producers are returning to growing a unique breed of pig or cow or vegetables and while Italian people embraced globalisation for many years, now they’re understanding that is not good for Italy and that there is a joy in doing something like making artisan cheese instead of being a lawyer!”
Left: Alessandro Pavoni; Right: Alesdsandro Pavoni's Risotto alla Milanese
FOOD FOR THE SOUL
Of his restaurants, it is a’Mare (meaning ‘seaside’ in the Puglian dialect) that Alessandro says is perhaps the most traditional, drawing inspiration from the classic Italian fine diners of old. It opened with his great-grandmother’s tortelli di zucca – which stills appears on the menu occasionally – and features his grandmother’s tiramisu and Alessandro’s own childhood favourite, the risotto Milanese his mother would cook for lunch every Thursday.
There is a certain nostalgia, not just in the dishes themselves but the service of them; an element of performance that frequent
Euro-travellers or Australians of a certain age might recognise. “I wanted to bring back the glamour of the tableside service,” Alessandro says. “The theatre that made going out special.”
Thus, the Genovese pesto, traditionally made by hand with mortar and pestle, is brought out on a trolley and prepared in front of the guests “a la minute”, whole-cooked fish is deftly filleted and plated at the table, the Roman favourite cacio e pepe tossed and served, and Nonna’s tiramisu or gelato finished with sweet accoutrements. “The food is meant to be easy to recognise but we offer that next level of service,” Alessandro says.
Food – and in particular the social element of dining together – is obviously still a big part of Alessandro’s life outside the restaurant. “My perfect day would start with a surf or jujitsu. Then I’d spend it with family, friends, chefs and their families," says Alessandro. "We’d cook, then sit down and eat and laugh and chat and play blues on the guitar with a glass of wine.”
Asked to describe himself, Alessandro volunteers that he is “disciplined.” Plagued with health issues, including cancer and two heart attacks, as well as having to manage rheumatoid arthritis, he has learned it is a necessary evil.
As such, he practises a strict, healthy eating regime, puts a high value on sleep (signing off from work by 9pm to be in bed by 10), meditates and does martial arts. It is a hard-won balance between mind, body and spirit.
Left: Alessandro Pavoni; Right: Alessandro Pavoni's Tiramisu al cucchiaio
“For me, discipline equals freedom,” he says. “My dream is to play golf or soccer or whatever sport they decide to do with my kids. And I know that to do that, it’s important to keep up my health and my fitness. Yes, I need to do 50 per cent more than a normal person in order to be 'normal', but I think it is the same for everyone. We will all eventually reach a moment in our lives when we need to make certain choices to be able to continue to live la dolce vita.”