Varvara, two generations at work at Varvara - fratelli di carne. Dad Antonio with his sons (left to right) Michele, Vincenzo and Alessandro
In the end, the issue was almost banal: how to go on with the struggling shop of dad Antonio? A historic butcher, in Altamura, Puglia, first registered in 1852, so in two years' time it will be 170 years of history, hardly peanuts. Fifth generation of the same family running it, it started with great-great-grandfather Michele, and they never stopped. But times change: retail is now unfashionable even in the suburbs; the shop was really struggling, even though the meat was extraordinary, supplied by heroic breeders scattered mostly on the Dolomiti lucane. It all felt like something out of disappearing ancient world, with little, if any, future; destined to disappear in a short time. So they needed to invent something new. And they had an idea too: turn everything into a grill-restaurant, where they could serve the perfectly cooked succulent cuts of meat from the counter. But then...
Michele Varvara (the same name as his great-great-grandfather, «we've always alternated: Michele the great-great-grandfather, Antonio the great-grandfather, Michele the grandfather, Antonio my father, Michele myself») had been thinking over it, little under six years ago. He did so remotely: born in 1983, a graduate in Chemical Engineering from Trento, he had a job in the same town, «I was working on the corrosion of food plants, so I visited many small factories, and became passionate about their history and products. I even started going to the restaurants they supplied». Michele was familiarising with the subject, thinking of his father's issues. He was thinking, but couldn't yet find the answers for the problems in Altamura, «I was only sure of one thing: the shop format that my dad was following, was no longer current, nor feasible». We needed something different. Mumble mumble. Perhaps a grill-restaurant. But then…
Michele Varvara with Corrado Assenza
Everything went well. People noticed the Varvaras' products. «The following day, the phone started to ring. Schingaro and the Cereas called first: they became our fist client and wanted our meat for their dishes. This led to an incredible domino effect, every week we made it to the list of suppliers of two or three top restaurants».
The project of the grill-restaurant died before being born, replaced by something even more interesting. «We stopped and asked ourselves: what shall we do? For sure we had been offered a promising alternative, which allowed us not to change anything about the job that my dad and grandfather had always done, that is to say select great meat. On top of that, we needed a new van, a new labelling system and new rules in the shop...». Not that difficult. Any doubt was definitely removed thanks to Domingo Schingaro, «he punched me, metaphorically. "Michele, come on, don't hesitate, just dive into this business". And he convinced me. I must give him credit for this». Then in June 2016, Michele and his brother Alessandro were at home, exhausted after a hard day at work: «We had looked into each other's eyes, full of doubts. A hug followed. It was at that moment that the old Varvara shop became Varvara - fratelli di carne».
Varvara Fillet of vacca podolica, mussels and sea urchins from Domenico Schingaro
Varvara Goat on the skewer, yogurt and pumpkin with spices, from Da Vittorio
Michele Varvara with Alessandro Negrini, Fabio Pisani and Aimo Moroni
Landscapes of the Dolomiti lucane
Varvara at work in the fields
Winter breeding in Lucania
The Varvaras with Diego Rossi
Lamb ribs with savoury, a dish from Enrico Bartolini. The lamb comes from Basilicata, and Varvara
The other obsession is France. Varvara now supplies four 3-starred restaurants in Italy (there's also Enrico Bartolini on top of the already mentioned Enoteca Pinchiorri, Da Vittorio and Piazza Duomo, «and by the way, I would like to note that Enrico Crippa taught me something very important, seeking perfection»). What's the link with France? «Crippa, but also Antonio Guida, have worked in France where they learnt to work with meat like nowhere else in the world. They both told me: your lamb is exceptional, better than those from the great maisons in France. In some they have tasted it, like at Troigros, and indeed they asked me to supply them. I sent a one-off. For now I can't do more because of logistics and authorisations, but we'll get there as well». France, and Denmark: «We arrived at Noma, again with lamb, thanks to Riccardo Canella [who recently left, see here]. It was last spring: it had a big success, René Redzepi wrote me some nice words. When there was the lockdown, they still had the entrails in the pantry: all the cooks were eager to compete to take them home».
We love Varvara's story because it's a case history on how to enhance Italian excellences by creating a network, making them available and known to the world. A model that can be replicated all across Italy so that many secluded extraordinary food excellences can stand out. Michele Varvara: «Basilicata alone has so many such realities. There are hundreds of businesses and extraordinary yet unknown products. There's lots to be done», and so is the potential.
Meat and delicacies from Varvara - fratelli di carne
Grilled ribs in broth: the dish of the year at Identità Golose 2020 is from Riccardo Camanini. The meat is from Varvara
Varvara - fratelli di carne's delivery service
Finally, we promised some useful info. With restaurants paralysed by the various lockdowns, Varvara has launched a shipment service to private clients, «I make my delicacies for Signora Maria, I like to say». Fancy some meat from Varvara? If you've arrived here you know you must adapt to what's available, because this is "real" meat. There is no website («I used the money to buy a vacuum machine and a labelling one, plus a new van»): you can give a look at their Facebook page Varvara - fratelli di carne, get an idea and then call 320 4118061, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. They ship these marvels all over Italy.
Translated by Slawka G. Scarso
An outdoor trip or a journey to the other side of the planet?
One thing is for sure: the destination is delicious, by Carlo Passera
journalist born in 1974, for many years he has covered politics, mostly, and food in his free time. Today he does exactly the opposite and this makes him very happy. As soon as he can, he dives into travels and good food. Identità Golose's editor in chief
A frame from the beginning of the documentary