My friend Gualtiero Marchesi – The first time at Bonvesin de la Riva...

Toni Sarcina, founder at Altopalato, tells us about his relationship with the Maestro – a piece of our cuisine’s history

Gualtiero Marchesi portrayed during his lesson at

Gualtiero Marchesi portrayed during his lesson at Altopalato

L’appuntamento con Toni Sarcina è in via Ausonio, sede storica di Altopalato, il Centro di cultura enogastronomica che ha fondato nel 1981, in collaborazione con la moglie Terry. Ci accomodiamo al tavolo, arrivano dolcetti siciliani di Caltagirone e una bottiglia d’acqua (per restare sobri e lucidi) con due bicchieri di cristallo: «Sono importanti, vengono dal primo locale di Gualtiero Marchesi, in Bonvesin de la Riva». Comincia la chiacchierata… (In tondo il testo di Toni Sarcina, in corsivo le sue parole raccolte da Carlo Passera)

We meet Toni Sarcina in Via Ausonio, in the historic headquarters of Altopalato, the centre dedicated to food and wine culture which he founded in 1981 with his wife Terry. We sit at a table, we’re served Sicilian cookies from Caltagirone and a bottle of water (to remain sober and vigil) in two crystal glasses: «They’re important. They come from Gualtiero Marchesi’s first restaurant, in Bonvesin de la Riva». The chat begins… (Content by Toni Sarcina, with his words reported by Carlo Passera in italics)

In 1978-1980, Milan wasn’t shining because of its fine dining; on top of a good number of decent Tuscan taverns some emblematic restaurants stood out, such as Savini, Giannino, Collina Pistoiese, Alfredo Valli, Bice and her sisters, Boeucc and little more. However, the innovative cuisine was creating some movement: La Scaletta had recently opened with Pina Bellini and, even more recently (people spoke of it in town as if of something “mysterious”) Gualtiero Marchesi had opened his restaurant in Via Bonvesin de La Riva.

«I immediately considered Gualtiero as someone remarkable. He wasn’t a cook. He was much more. He was in a completely different league. He wasn’t aware of this feature himself. I told him: you shouldn’t discuss with them. You have nothing to do with them. They think that you are colleagues, but you’re not. They did things. He was something different».

A recent picture of Gualtiero Marchesi and Toni Sarcina

A recent picture of Gualtiero Marchesi and Toni Sarcina

I had a different job at the time (I was running an international Insurance company) but given I was a lover of high quality food and I was always away on business, I was always looking for some interesting place; in my travels, I often visited the famous Cantarelli in Samboseto, Parma, which was really over the top. I had never been at Marchesi’s; they told me it was rather expensive, especially when compared to the minimal size of the dishes. In fact, there was this saying in Milan at the time, that: “If you dine at Marchesi’s, then you must look for a pizzeria to feel full”; today this would be defined as “fake news” and I will tell you why.

I tried to collect some information on him and some friends told me he was an elegant, rather evasive, perhaps opinionated man. He hardly appeared in the dining room. The service was surely impeccable, with a very professional sommelier and innovative dishes.

«I remember a man went to his restaurant once. He had already been there 3 or 4 times, and he would spend a lot. After all, Marchesi’s restaurant was expensive, for the time. I believe it costed 45000 lire at first. This guy was with friends, and you know how everybody enjoys looking like a regular, saying they’ve tried the dishes, being recognised and so on. So this client arrived, Gualtiero asked him what he wanted to order. He said: “The same as last time”. Another chef would have said: “Of course!”, and would have looked for the old orders back in the kitchen, or would have asked the dining room or kitchen staff. Not Gualtiero: “Why, have you ever been here?”».

A very young Marchesi at the counter of Mercato, the family hotel-cum-restaurant 

A very young Marchesi at the counter of Mercato, the family hotel-cum-restaurant 

I immediately wanted to check in person, but things went differently because then I happened to meet Gualtiero Marchesi at a party. I interviewed him and found I perfectly agreed with him and his idea of innovative cuisine. In other words, a new friendship was born.

I paid him a visit at his restaurant with a group of friends, who were also curious to “test his cuisine”.

«His restaurant in Bonvesin de la Riva needed to get known, because in the first few years it was often empty; in fact, at lunchtime it was deserted, and there were few guests in the evening. Then top models started to arrive, and with them a special kind of clientele. They went there because in Milan it was either Marchesi or nothing. And then he had this appearance, so different from everyone else, a different language, and not because he was refined: he was well-read. He expressed his great passion; he seemed rather egocentric, in terms of character. But only seemingly so. In fact, he was very shy. He wouldn’t go in the dining room. He’d just stay behind the scenes, looking at the impact of his dishes».

Marchesi and his team in Via Bonvesin de la Riva

Marchesi and his team in Via Bonvesin de la Riva

Via Bonvesin de La Riva, the name itself seemed like it wasn’t chosen by chance.

The restaurant, with a very elegant décor, with no frills whatsoever, had visitors immediately understand part of the host’s personality; you went down two flights of stairs to the floor below, to the dining room, also elegant and arty. On the tables, instead of the usual flower-centrepieces, there would be precious sculptures from famous authors. I thought the setting was extraordinary and had an essential elegance. The dining room staff, very professional, with a maitre – sommelier (Giuseppe Vaccarini) who at the time was the world sommelier champion. We sat, Gualtiero arrived and we asked him to choose three exemplifying dishes.

«Marchesi was presenting a new cuisine, a difficult one. Only in Milan he could do something like this. Because there’s no small-town mentality here. So dining there gradually became “posh”: if you ate there, you were somebody. The fashion industry started to bring top models, because portions were small and those paying had no budget issues. He was very elegant, not very lively; everything was muffled, except when I’d arrive with my friends, creating some noise. After all, we were there to dine!»

I only mention a dish, for an anecdote: they brought some soup bowls with some beautiful small heads of porcini at the bottom, all in the same size; the waiter poured some incredibly clear broth on top. I’d never seen something like this. A fantastic dish, and with a memorable neatness, in terms of appearance, delicateness, and flavour. In my opinion that dish was emblematic of a culinary world that was changing completely. From that moment on I realised that in the future we would have to speak of current cuisine referring to a “before Marchesi

We spoke at length, after dinner, and started a series of conversations that continued over the years, and I invited him to visit my wife Terry’s cooking school.

«I’ve always been the first to test his new dishes. He looked at me with affection, because he knew he could trust me, even in case of a negative feedback. I remember a dish that didn’t convince me: "Triglie e capesante, le due salse", in which the sauce of the mullet was used to season the scallop and vice versa. The idea was brilliant, but he had me taste it at the wrong time: I was dining with friends, including don Zega, who was then the director at Famiglia Cristiana. It was time for dessert, at the end of a rather rich menu, and Gualtiero came from the kitchen: “Don’t leave, I’d like you to taste something”. I tasted it and wasn’t convinced. I told him so, he told me to get lost (a euphemism) and didn’t speak to me for 15 days until I begged him: “Gualtiero, can I taste it again?”. “Not even if you cry. Not even if you pay 10 times the price. You’ll never try it again”. But then he accepted. And he was right, I wasn’t. It was an extraordinary dish».

1984: Marchesi receives the Europa a tavola award from Toni Sarcina (right)

1984: Marchesi receives the Europa a tavola award from Toni Sarcina (right)

Terry, together with a famous gastronomist of the time, aka “Lisa Biondi” (in fact she was Lydia Salvetti Cipolla, a great lady and a real food expert), had opened a cooking school where for the first time they taught semi-professional techniques to enthusiasts, with hands-on lessons. To give this project a suitable location, we bought a hotel with a restaurant inside and a large kitchen. We renovated it. The patron went somewhere else and in the perfectly equipped kitchen we taught two courses: foundations and fine dining. At the end of the second course, pupils, together with a professional chef, offered a “tasting” for some specially selected guests. On one of these occasions Gualtiero arrived. He was thrilled and said: «Why don’t you present these nice events to a larger public?». We discussed it and got our common friend Eugenio Medagliani involved. He was a historic “calderaio” in Milan, and at the end of these conversari, Altopalato was born. But this is another story.

«He was a pioneer. I see today’s great chefs, proud of their innovations, but I notice Marchesi often got there long before them. Not with emulsions, spherifications, syphons and so on. They weren’t necessary. He did things he called “Today…”: it meant he would bring you some 14 sublime delicacies. I remember a parmigiana di melanzane served on a teaspoon. It was pure flavour. This, long before Adrià. It was a journey much more intellectual which nobody will ever be able to repeat. When you arrived there, he immediately asked: sparkling wine or saké? Most chose saké. No wine, because he believed it spoiled the dishes».



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