Lopriore in detail

The revolutionary format created by the chef from Como shows advantages for the client and the restaurant


Clockwise from 12 o’clock: Gnocchi made with semolina, diced kidneys with tomato, goat kefir, turmeric and pepper sauce. This is one of the sequences you might happen to create at Il Portico, the restaurant Paolo Lopriore opened last 4th August in Appiano Gentile (Como). A brave tribute to conviviality, the result of a deep analysis of the anthropological roots of Italian food (photo by Zanatta)

Over the past few months we’ve often written about Paolo Lopriore. We gave wide space to his exploration and redefinition of the anthropological roots of Italian cuisine, a convivial celebration of meals which the chef himself successfully depicted at Cook_Inc 15 as «a cultural fact in which gestures, materials and customs participate with equal importance and value as the dishes themselves».

This young man first turned this format into practice at restaurant I Tre Cristi in Milan, during the summer of Expo. And on 4th August he moved it to Il Portico, the restaurant he opened in his hometown Appiano Gentile, in the province of Como.

The outline is well known: in the centre of the table they serve a baking tin filled each time with substantial ingredients (lavaret filets, gnocchi made with semolina, slices of oven-baked veal...). All around the serving dish, 4 or 5 bowls and plates big and small appear, with different content and textures (black pepper sauce, carrot seed extract, apricots preserved in vinegar, mosto cotto, goat kefir…). Guests are invited to build their own dish in the way and sequence they prefer at that moment. It’s an alliance between chef and client that generates intriguing, elegant and delicious solutions, livened up by the warm atmosphere which never weighs on the person eating for a very simple reason: if you’re going to finish the dish yourself, you can’t feel uneasy.

These are the first flashes of a revolution that could have proselytes. A beginning with a clean slate compared to some post-Escoffier rituals and the reproduction of unauthentic models in today’s dining. A subversion that in fact restores and reinterprets with intelligence some typical dynamics we have. We tried to sum this up through two keys: the advantages this format has for the client, and the benefits it brings to the chef/patron.

Paolo Lopriore arrives at the table armed with a steamer: he pours a juice of butter and gin with which he’ll enrich some sui generis sautéed mussels

Paolo Lopriore arrives at the table armed with a steamer: he pours a juice of butter and gin with which he’ll enrich some sui generis sautéed mussels

Advantages for the client
- Sartorial ingredients. At Il Portico clients don’t just “serve themselves” by moving ladles of food from a common baking tin onto their plate but creatively “compose” the dish, following their present taste and mood, drawing from many possibilities. «Our palate is never the same», says the chef, «at the end of the evening my taste buds are so tired that I may need three teaspoons of bay leaf sauce to taste what you taste with half a teaspoon. Who am I to give the same proportion of ingredients to all?». No final composition of a client will ever look like the one of the person sitting beside him.

- Taste’s central role. It is true clients are free to compose their dish. Yet the choice of the elements to add is the result of the chef’s almost 30 years of experience (he wore the first apron in 1988 at Riviere in Appiano, now closed: «At the end of the season, the salary was a suitcase with Montana knives»). These tastings are almost always super delicious, regardless of their distribution. The flavours are on the edge between lightened up pure tradition and stimulating challenges (and not only because of Lopriore’s proverbial explorations of sour and bitter tones).

- The playful dimension. The party’s format easily creates a pleasant atmosphere. Some lines of dialogue overheard from nearby tables: «We’re three and there’s a total of 9 pieces of fish. I saw you take 4…». «Is there some goat kefir left for my gnocco? Too late, sorry, you shouldn’t have gone to the toilet».

- The chef finishes the dish at the table. It is often Lopriore himself who takes part in the service. In this process the objects honouring the table (some sort of modern centrepieces) have a significant role. They were created by Tuscan friend and designer Andrea Salvetti (like the Steamer or the Mistery pot, we wrote about it here). «Andrea is the artistic side», the chef points out to avoid any misunderstanding, «I’m instead the person who needs to understand when the mussels are cooked». 

- The Italian menu. In the end, the way Il Portico is organised today, you can enjoy a complete menu. That is to say there are the four courses typical of Italian meals: starter, first course, main course, dessert (in the evening; at lunchtime there’s a single course dish). Speaking of first courses, Lopriore is also working on the service of some pasta to share, «But it’s complicated because people don’t really know what to do when they’re served a baking tin of pasta with some sauce beside».

Sciatt valtellinesi, iced seaweeds, sauce of bay leaves, fermented cabbage, parsley and celery salad. Lopriore is also studying a menu of historic dishes, helped by food historian Luca Govoni, teacher at Alma

Sciatt valtellinesi, iced seaweeds, sauce of bay leaves, fermented cabbage, parsley and celery salad. Lopriore is also studying a menu of historic dishes, helped by food historian Luca Govoni, teacher at Alma

- The desecrating spirit. Guests are more relaxed because they are freed from any formal obligation imposed by French fine dining tradition. «The important thing is eating, it’s food. The rest is not necessary. Are we or are we not the people of the chequered tablecloth and the infrangible glass in front of the plate?»

- A versatile offer. The format suits those with allergies, intolerances or who dislike a specific food: you just need to avoid the unpopular ingredient.

- The stratification of the dirty plate. Throughout the menu, the plate on which you eat never changes. Therefore flavours overlap, course after course. «Guests», Carlo Passera finely explained «choose if and how to mix sauces and aromas, creating new nuances of flavours under the direction of a chef who can assess the basic compatibility of the possible one thousand interactions, but then leaves the final decision to the guest».

- Reusing the fork. When you are done with eating, you place the cutlery on the table and don’t turn them on the plate so they can change them for you: «This gesture is part of Italian history and we shouldn’t forget it».

- A truthful bill. Guests pay a competitive price: 50 and 60 euros for the set of four courses in the evening; from 14 to 18 euros for the single course dish at lunchtime (including bread and water). Eating well, feeling good, paying the right amount.

The benefits for the cook
- No more pass anxiety. There’s no more need for the cook to be anxious for the final touches at the pass: guest themselves will think of the dishing out. «Because», the chef explains with a metaphor, «if you buy a painting from me, I cannot tell you where you should hang it in your home».

- Taste’s central role (part two). The chef focuses almost all the time on the flavour of a recipe and little on the rhetoric of a dish or on all the other extra-taste frills. «The only beauty I’m interested in today», he points out, «is that of the flavours. I’m a trainer/athlete who tosses pans with his mind and body but then it’s the players, that is to say the guests, who play».

Figs with pears, glazed almonds, fiordilatte ice cream and mosto cotto, the curtain at the end of the menu at Il Portico

Figs with pears, glazed almonds, fiordilatte ice cream and mosto cotto, the curtain at the end of the menu at Il Portico

- Less staff. You don’t need a large number of people, quite the contrary. «We’re currently 5 in total, 3 in the kitchen and 2 in the dining room. We only have two stations, the one for hot recipes and that for cold preparations. The staff will not change even if we were to increase the number of guests». A good way of saving. 

- Menu rotation. You can change the menu very often, without any special trauma from one step to the other. «With this format I can second the unforeseeable catch of the fisherman in Ossuccio or Laura Peri telling me she has 8 ducks ready for me».

- Making the supplier responsible. Artisans are given a strong responsibility, weakening the omnipotence of today’s chefs: «It’s the butcher who does the cuts, and the fisherman sends the fish already in fillets. The way it used to be, and the way it should be».

- No breaks. The timing of the service is easier to manage: there are no breaks between one course and the other (another advantage for the guest, in fact).

- Wine’s subordinate role. Wines have a very sleek and careful selection. Upon our visit, there were only 9 labels in the list: 3 bubbles, 3 white wines and 3 red wines, all special and rather “easy” to drink. «I know well that a restaurant’s turnover is often based more on wine than food. However in my idea of conviviality wine is a complement of the territory, an original pairing; it’s not a bulky presence that arrives after a ceremony that makes the atmosphere heavy».

Il Portico
Piazza della Libertà
Appiano Gentile (Como)
Tasting menu: 50 and 60 euros in the evening; 14/16 euros for a single course dish at lunchtime.
Closed on Saturday at lunchtime, on Tuesday night and the entire day on Wednesday.

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Gabriele Zanatta

born in Milan, 1973, freelance journalist, he's been working as a co-author and coordinator of Identità Golose World restaurant guidebook since the first edition (2007) and is a contributor for several on and offline magazines. twitter @gabrielezanatt