“I’m not a chef, I’m Italian”- David Rocco

Monday, March 24, 2014

An Interview with Florence Restaurateur Umberto Montano of Alle Murate

Buongiorno mei amici! During my recent stay in bella Firenze, I had the pleasure of meeting with Umberto Montano, owner of Alle Murate, Osteria del Caffe' Italiano, Pizzeria Caffe Italiano, SUD and The President of the historic Mercato Centrale. 
I had the chance to sit down for lunch with Umberto at Alle Murate, which is like dining in a fine museum. To give you a little history before we get to the interview, Alle Murate is located in Palazzo dell'Arte dei Giudici e Notai which houses fourteenth century frescoes and archaeological excavations from Roman times to the Renaissance. The frescoes include the oldest documented portraits that exist of Dante and Boccaccio, which was quite exciting to see. Being in Alle Murate is really like going back in time; it is an experience not to be missed.
With Umberto at Alle Murate
During my stay, Umberto was kind enough to invite me to the groundbreaking ceremony of the new first floor of the Mercato Centrale.

The building for Mercato Centrale was built sometime between 1870 and 1874 by architect Guiseppe Mengoni. It is a beautiful market with dozens and dozens of vendors selling fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese, bread, pastries, seafood and spices. If you’re as passionate about food as I am, you’ll feel like a kid in a candy store walking through here. It’s absolutely incredible. As I mentioned, Umberto is the President of Mercato Centrale and he will be doing a complete renovation of the first floor, adding new shops and a cooking school. At Alle Murate, I got to try the mozzarella that will be sold at the Mercato and I have to be honest with you…this mozzarella put all other mozzarella to shame. It was like nothing I’ve ever tasted. I can’t quite explain it because no words could do it justice, you will just have to go the Market or Alle Murate and try it for yourself! I can’t wait to return to Italy later this year, when the new first floor should be up and running. In the meantime, I’ll just have my beautiful memories to fantasize about until then…without further ado, I give you my full interview with Umberto Montano.

For me, some of my favorite memories involve food. What are some of your favorite food memories?
I’m full of fond food memories. I worked in the kitchen for fifteen years and while I was working I tried to extend what the people would really like. The best dish you’ve ever had in your life…it’s connected with the history, the memory. It’s always a dish that comes from the background, the family. Food with character is the secret in the dish.

Are your menus a combination of regional Italian cuisine or do you showcase a specific region?
Our chef is born in Southern Italy. (The chef at Alle Murate , Giovanna Iorio.) She makes the food from the South and Tuscany. It gives us a creative cuisine with strong character and very tasty dishes. What I don’t like is food to be prepared to be shown. I think it’s more important for food to be tasted. Italian food is so high on smell and taste, to make it beautiful is to give too much.

What makes dining at each of your restaurants its own unique experience?
The fresco of Dante at Alle Murate
Alle Murate is filled with passion. The frescoes, to discover the face of Dante…between the art and the food, it is a complete experience. To see the passion that passed through the walls and then the food, it is beautiful. At Caffe' Italiano you get to have the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, you can choose between three different steaks. It is some of the best steak you will find.

What first got you interested in the restaurant business?
When I was fourteen, I studied restaurant business in Switzerland. My best experience is teaching, I learned a lot. To teach well, you need to know. You need to be a critic. Sophisticated culture for what you’re talking about.

Do you have a favorite dish from each of your restaurants?
Osteria is pomodoro in the summertime, in winter, ribollita. When the tomatoes are fresh…there is a special touch that makes each one unique. Alle Murate makes the best pasta in the world. She (Chef Giovanna Iorio) uses fresh peas in the pasta, pumpkin gorgonzola. I think the pasta is impressive. They are dishes that work. At the pizzeria, the pizza Margherita and Napoli. At SUD, we prepare classic southern specialties, like a fava bean puree sandwich with extra virgin olive oil.

What advice would you have for someone looking to get involved in the restaurant industry?
Do it, but with a lot of love and attention. Take care of every little thing. Stay there, be present, you want to touch people’s hearts. Every single detail is important.

Do you have any tried and true cooking tips you wouldn’t mind sharing?
You should never cook if you don’t have a strong feeling inside. Never go in the kitchen if you don’t want to stay there. If you want to make great food, do it when you’re strongly happy. Food needs sentiment.

Are any of the dishes served at your restaurants family dishes?
Yes, mostly. Everything comes from the culture when Giovanna grew up. She refuses to be called chef, she says, “I am a cook, not a chef. I come from the school of my mother and my mother was not a chef.” Giovanna is the best example of cucina rustica..rustic kitchen.

At the groundbreaking ceremony of the new first floor of Mercato Centrale
Were you approached to renovate the first floor of Mercato Centrale or was it your idea?
I am in partnership to build up the market. The difference between this market and the others is to create a partnership. To bring the people from the farms, to give them the opportunity to have a shop. Give them marketing and advertising. I bring people from the south of Italy to make the mozzarella. I organize a way to give the farmers a way for them to the come to the town and have their own business.
If you weren’t in the restaurant industry, what would you have been?
I don’t know. I would have like to have been an artist. The biggest satisfaction is when I can realize things through creativity.

What would your last meal be?
It’s not food…but the lips of my wife.

What is some of the best food you have ever eaten?
A puree of broth beans, chicory and extra virgin olive oil, made by my great grandmother. Prepared in a terracotta pan in the fireplace. Often the ingredients can be very simple to make something incredible.

After the broth beans, a meal I shared with the family that makes the mozzarella for the mercato. The 94 year old man had some beautiful tomatoes. We all sit there with a piece of bread, take out the mozzarella with our hands in the water. The farmer with the tomato cuts them with a knife in his hand. Some of the best food I have had in my life.

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