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Da Vittorio’s cuisine

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Da Vittorio has been a Bergamo household name for over half a century. The large family owned firm turned fifty this year. Vittorio, who founded the company and gave it its name, handed the reins over to his five children ten years ago. Among them are Enrico and Roberto Cerea, the chefs that turned the restaurant into a luxury destination. With its unique mixture of tradition and innovation, class and creativity, their kitchen has been awarded three Michelin stars. The Cerea brothers build from local products and traditions, while taking inspiration from international culinary excellences. With clients coming from all over the world, Da Vittorio is a bridge between the past (always remembered with a bit of nostalgia) and the future: “We want to celebrate our 100th anniversary and beyond.”

Is it possible to distill the essence of Da Vittorio in one word? The answer is yes: family.
To be welcomed by the Cereas is to come home. The home of Enrico and Roberto, known to all as Chicco and Bobo, the brothers and chefs who won their family restaurant the third coveted Michelin star, six years ago. And the home of Francesco, the business backbone of the family enterprise. It is the home of Rossella, the front of house who watches over every detail. Of Bruna, the family matriarch, with her faithful little black poodle always in tow. Presiding over everything and everyone, is the spirit of father Vittorio, the one who, on the 6th of April 1966, opened their first business in Bergamo, in the same location where the fifth member of the clan, Barbara, now manages the historical Caffè Cavour 1880. Eleven years ago, Da Vittorio relocated to its new premises in Brusaporto, a few kilometers out of town, in an elegant residence surrounded by vineyards which is now a member of the luxury hospitality circuit Relais & Châteaux. The Cereas have defined and expanded upon their paternal legacy, without losing sight of what really matters: “The kitchen is and always will be at the center of our work. Food never ceases to inspire us, and we hope it will continue to inspire others. The food has to be a reward for those who come to our restaurant.” These are Enrico’s words, they already sound like a manifesto.

The Cerea brothers are four hands in the kitchen and one mind, you see it in how often they give similar answers, whether you are chatting to them together or separately. “Working together helps: where one of us can’t reach, the other steps in,” Chicco explains. “The only draw-back is that we are both stubborn: two typical Bergamo hardheaded lads. We both always assume to be right and there always comes a time when you have to just stop. And trust.” Bobo echoes his brother: “We grew up elbow-fighting each other in the kitchen, always competing; if one tried a new dish, the other would try to improve it. But the competition between us is healthy, maybe it is what got us here.” The only real surprise, if you can call it that, is how little time they get to spend together in the same kitchen nowadays, because of the many commitments they both have. Sunday morning, however, is still a sacred time, when everyone sits around the table to plan the upcoming week, define priorities and deadlines. Da Vittorio is a restaurant, a hotel, a café, but also a cooking school, a recently opened bistro in Bergamo’s airport, a catering service, and many other side projects that range from events such as the Vinitaly exposition to business partnerships outside of Italy. “Today, we have thirty people in the kitchen, one hundred twenty employees just in the restaurant. All together, we employ three hundred people.” Enrico’s figures mean big business, but the atmosphere here is still that of a home. “We grew up in Bergamo and we stayed here, watching the town change with time. We wanted to do something for this community and the town has repaid us in so many ways. Today, it is one of the most affluent areas in Europe, it has its own airport which attracts international visitors, it is close to Milan but immersed in tranquil countryside.” We end up talking about sustainability, and the ‘zero food-miles’ slogan that has become such a buzzword in the Italian food industry. “Our area has one of the highest concentrations of protected denominations in Italy, when I travel abroad I like to bring with me wild strawberries and ‘Sciur’, a matured goats’ cheese with berries that is typical of this area. But haute cuisine is a world that cannot afford to close in on itself, it cannot do without excellent produce from all over the world. Here at Da Vittorio everyday we get Alaskan king crabs delivered still alive. Being able to offer produce such as this is a privilege but also the duty of a great chef.” The crabs arrive on the morning we meet as well, together with crates of Mediterranean shellfish, an octopus which Enrico personally weighs and evaluates, and a ten-kilo sea bass that is simply too beautiful to pass up: “Come on! Make me a deal!” he jokes on the phone with the supplier. One of seven regular suppliers, and that’s just for the fish, he tells me later. “That’s also how menus are put together: choosing every day your raw materials, often you come across things you hadn’t even thought of ordering.”

Chicco ‘the visionary’ and Bobo ‘the stalwart’ preside over the kitchen, for them it is a kingdom, for others it can feel a bit like a labyrinth. Where the stoves for the main courses end the patisserie section begins, and then there’s the table for assembling the entrees, and the storage room where the copperware is kept, and so forth, you could get lost in here. The brothers keep their distance from the trendy gastrocracy that is transforming many of their colleagues into TV celebrities. “The televised popularity of food is a great showcase for all cooks. But as a chef you have to be in your kitchen, not on camera, it is vital: you can’t leave it to somebody else,” Enrico explains. “With experience, you cook with your sense of smell and sight, we instantly know if the guy in charge is doing well or not. It is the secret of expertise. I feel strange about having suddenly become the one who teaches others a craft, and not just someone who is still learning.” Just like they have learned from their father. “Dad got me inside the kitchen when I was eleven years old,” Roberto recalls. “I fell in love with the first courses, they are still my passion: when I have an idea for a dish, that is the shape I like to give it. The most recent creation? A risotto with smoked Giarratana onion cream, raw Mazara prawns and mandarin drops.” But the foundations of the Cerea brothers’ tastes are the foods of their childhood: “Peperonata, just like our father would make it, with any vegetables he had close at hand and a little pancetta: we would eat it with bread straight out of the pan until there was none left. And his Paccheri pasta with the three-tomato sauce: it is still one the most sought after items on our menu.” Having tasted it, It is not hard to see why.

For Enrico and Roberto cooking is a constantly-evolving research, open to unexpected combinations and in an ongoing conversation with its natural partner: wine. “It’s like, when you create a dish, there are certain rules but you have to keep yourself open to surprises. A cook’s palate has to be trained to evaluate even the most unusual flavor combinations, unexpected and wonderful things can happen that way,” Enrico explains. “When it comes to wine, nowadays, it is all about playing with contrasts and serving temperatures, it has now become admissible to cool down some reds and leave certain whites quite mellow. Lately, I like to pair the classic Milanese cutlet with a good rosé. Cooking is a subjective field, no one is ‘right’. All you can do is offer new experiences to those who are willing to embark on that journey with you.” Which brings us back to the relationship with our customers, who arrive to this home where everyone, in some way, feels welcomed in a family. “As long as it is just in the chef’s mind, a dish doesn’t exist,” Bobo reflects. “It is the diner, the one who eats it and likes it that gives it life, that brings it into the world, in a sense.”

1966-2016: Da Vittorio celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. “We have officially reached the third generation, it is not something we take for granted, it makes us feel honored, and inspired,” Roberto says with a smile. “After fifty years we can say that food is in our DNA, but I have no idea what our children will do in the future. You cannot force anyone to undertake such a demanding profession: we could not be here without a lot of effort and sacrifices, in terms of time, of relationships, and the best years of your life. It is a work that can reward you beyond measure: it is not by chance that all of us siblings have followed in our parents’ footsteps.” And here Enrico gets a little nostalgic: “My father has created all this from nothing, he felt the weight of a growing family on his shoulders. But that is the past, now we have a future ahead of us. The next challenge is to celebrate our one-hundredth anniversary and then move beyond that. Da Vittorio has come of age, and the next goal is to branch out, acquire an international presence. It is something we have been considering for a while now.” Are their sights directed to the West or to the East? “I don’t want to jinx it, I guess I’m a little superstitious that way.”

And lastly, everyone comes together for a family photo shoot, the Cereas get ready, posing on the staircase that leads to the entrance. For a moment, all of them exchange glances. Maybe it is all here, in this ability they have of understanding each other without a word, the secret ingredient that makes Vittorio great.

An Interview with Enrico and Roberto Cerea
Words – Mattia Carzaniga
Photography – Fabrizio Vatieri

 

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