Osteria Porta del Vaglio, what a nice surprise

In Saracena, Calabria, young Gennaro Di Pace presents his intelligent and modern cuisine. An impeccable dinner

06-09-2017

Gennaro Di Pace (photo by Gabriele Tolisano)

Photogallery

Our nice dinner in the photos by Tanio Liotta. Starting with the appetizers: Wafers of rice from Sibari (black and whole rice) with ketchup and 'nduja
Buckwheat biscuits, blue cheese, salted nuts
Salted codfish croquettes
Hemp wafer, cucumbers, pecorino, kiwi and mackerel

You have to venture in the narrow alleys, what with winding staircases and backstreets, in the heart of the medieval village. A gourmet restaurant? Here? Are you sure? Saracena is indeed a special place, a spiritual one: oozing history and authenticity, with a vocation for hospitality and friendliness. It has discovered wine and food as its saving vocation to fight the growing depopulation and the structural job hunting difficulties. The famous Moscato Passito wine is surely the point of reference. The village has always shown this wine can attract people, especially in its deepest and most famous celebration connected with the festival dedicated to patron saint San Leone, celebrated in February and August; in the Saracena Wine Festival, in the little roads of the Arab-looking historic centre; in the events organised by networks of towns grouped in associations (Città dell’Olio, Città del vino).

Gennaro Di Pace, born in 1984, one of the Cooking Soon chefs who are revolutionising the image of Calabrian food decided to return here, and set his restaurant, against all odds. «Why open a gourmet restaurant here?» his partner in life and  business Rossana Gallo asked him perhaps. Half Calabrian and half Apulian, she was born and raised in Bologna, in a completely different context: «What’s making us do this?». The answer must have been: pride, initiative, perhaps even a touch of madness. And a thought: «At night, there are more people in the streets in Saracena than Bologna», it’s a lively place that is. With courage, they overcame every hesitation: let’s begin.

Beautiful Saracena

Beautiful Saracena

Indeed the couple left Bologna in the direction of Calabria: Di Pace had been working in the capital of Emilia Romagna for 12 years, first at Il Battibecco and then at I Portici, and he also learnt a lot from Gino Fabbri and Marcello Leoni. In 2012 he decided to try and return home («My hope for Calabria? That all those who left return and invest here»). It was a difficult start, of course: «After three months we were almost desperate, we thought we had to close. The few people who came, asked for grilled meat and tiramisù. Then little by little things adjusted», clients now come from Castrovillari, Lamezia, Cosenza, «of course in the winter we almost only have guests at the weekend». People are still afraid to get inside, in places where the food is really good.

The restaurant is fascinating, between the walls of one of the four doors to the city, Porta del Vaglio, «before us, there used to be a hospital here, then a baker’s, a school and finally a pub». They seat 25 people, the service is a little rustic but disciplined and passionate. The chef likes to recall when, at the beginning of his career, after catering school, he was working in the summer in Riccione, and shared a bare-looking room with Gianni Sinesi, now gran sommelier at Reale Casadonna, with Niko Romito.

There’s truth, at Osteria Porta del Vaglio: like the one that urges Di Pace to acknowledge his mother and grandmothers were his true masters, or to say his passion for cooking derives from the fact «they self-produced almost everything at home, they had hens for eggs, and pigs for cured meat, olive trees for oil, cattle… And then my aunt opened a restaurant in Germany. Something comes from there too».

Giuseppe Lamenza, dining room man, Rossana Gallo, Gennaro Di Pace and sous chef Cesare Grazioli (photo by Tanio Liotta)

Giuseppe Lamenza, dining room man, Rossana Gallo, Gennaro Di Pace and sous chef Cesare Grazioli (photo by Tanio Liotta)

I look at the dishes tasted, to find my way in my memories, after a few weeks. I must conclude, happily surprised, that the dinner was impeccable. The relationship with the territory was successful; tradition and creativity were balanced; cooking techniques were good (only the rice could have been cooked a little less…); the flavours were well focused; the tasting menu had no extremes nor boring moments. Had he been elsewhere, people would speak more of Di Pace. But I like the idea he’s bravely in Saracena, a sentinel of taste close to Pollino: he’ll need extra time and efforts, but he’s got the talent.

A short summary, after the usual photo gallery with pictures by Tanio Liotta: the bread was excellent (delicious bread sticks with licorice, sesame and fennel and chilli pepper; rolls with milk, black olives, onions from Tropea, spinach-lemon-pink pepper – delicious – with semolina and whole wheat, baked in the wood oven with mother yeast).

In the restaurant, many works by artist Claudia Zicari

In the restaurant, many works by artist Claudia Zicari

The Hemp wafer, cucumber, pecorino, kiwi and mackerel marinated and cooked in its water was delicious; the Rolled courgette with potatoes from Sila, egg yolk, mustard sauce, cream of blue cheese with anchovy and courgette flower was surprising and fascinating.

It is with meat, however, that Di Pace gives his best: the Tartare di Podolica, mayonnaise with mustard, marjoram, fig molasses and mousse of toasted olives was majestic. The  Terrine of rabbit, crispy pan brioche, onion from Tropea, reduced broth of licorice (the rabbit is cooked in the same broth) was perfect (and so delicious!), the same goes for the Tongue of Podolica, pear fermented in vinegar, sour yogurt, lemon grass, red fruits.

Desserts were also very good, a passion of Di Pace’s: especially the  Rice cooked in milk, candied cedar, caramel wafer, gel of Moscato di Saracena, dehydrated hemp.

So do go to Saracena. It’s worth the trip.
Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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Photogallery

Our nice dinner in the photos by Tanio Liotta. Starting with the appetizers: Wafers of rice from Sibari (black and whole rice) with ketchup and 'nduja
Buckwheat biscuits, blue cheese, salted nuts
Salted codfish croquettes
Hemp wafer, cucumbers, pecorino, kiwi and mackerel
Cow’s milk ricotta, tomato gel, vinegar, dehydrated and powdered black olives
Courgette roll with potatoes from Sila, egg yolk, mustard sauce, cream of blue cheese and anchovy and courgette flower
Tartare of Podolica, mustard mayonnaise, marjoram, fig molasses and toasted olive mousse
Seared octopus, cream of almonds, rocket salad water, wafer of potatoes from Sila with squid ink
Rabbit terrine, crispy pan brioche, onions from Tropea, reduced broth of licorice  
Rice from Sibari, late orange from Trebisacce in powder and mousse, ginger, seared squid
Fusilloni di Gragnano cooked in pea water, cream of pecorino, powdered tomato and crispy peppers
Tongue of Podolica, pear fermented in vinegar, sour yogurt, lemon grass, red fruits