Viviana, hurray for the new Alice

Lots of news from Varese, including a male dining room and cooks who fled the wars in Africa. The problem of depression

by Paolo Marchi
Lots of news from Alice, Viviana Varese’s rest

Lots of news from AliceViviana Varese’s restaurant inside Eataly Smeraldo in Milan. Left to right, Gianluca De Marco and Luis Diaz, the two new maîtres, then the chef with Ritu Dalmia, the Indian restaurant-woman who bought 20% of Varese’s business. Finally, the two sommeliers, Federica Radice and Jessica Rocchi

Viviana Varese, step by step. The first restaurant at 21 in Orio Litta (Lodi), back in 1995: «I had no idea what the Michelin guide was». This was followed by eleven years of anonymous cooking while gradually and mentally getting closer to Milan and while broadening her horizons until she closed everything in 2006 and moved to Milan. The restaurant, which was called Il Girasole when it was close to river Po, became Alice once in Via Adige - a fish as its symbol, and a tribute to Lewis CarrollViviana was in the kitchen, her partner Sandra Ciciriello in the dining room and cellar. The name Alice was kept even when in March 2015 they moved to the last floor of Eataly Smeraldo.

Things have changed. As of November last year, Sandra is part of the past, in every sense, and now that this very important phase that lasted 14 years is over, Varese not only will renovate the restaurant in the summer, but she will also change its name: from Alice toViva Alice, a nice play on words. «Reporter Paolo Galliani suggested it in an article. I was still in Via Adige and he thought that Alice was a nice establishment, but it didn’t do justice to my work, so much so that he suggested I’d call it Viva Alice both as a tribute to quality, and to recall my initials, Viva as in V.V. Viviana Varese. I had never noticed, actually». So this will be the name as of September.

Viviana Varese and Ritu Dialma, chef; Federica Radice and Jessica Rocchi, sommelier

Viviana Varese and Ritu Dialma, chef; Federica Radice and Jessica Rocchi, sommelier


New logo, a sardine that jumps from a bowl full of water, new lights, new bathroom, new cellar, new collaborators – and as for this, there’s lots of polemic as the dining room is no longer entirely female – and a new partner that has a completely different story compared to CicirielloVarese has sold 20% of her business to Ritu Dalmia, an Indian restaurant woman with dozens of restaurants and catering businesses serving thousands of people in India, England, South Africa, and in Milan with Cittamani in Via Montebello. They will develop the catering business, but without opening another place because they interpret distant worlds.

They met five years ago as recalled by Ritu: «I was looking for an Italian chef for a service on Lake Como and chose Viviana. We met and she spent the entire night telling me how beautiful life was. Everything beautiful, but I had no idea if she was capable of doing a good job. Indeed, it was a bit of a disaster. Starred chefs have a great and serious limit: they are perfect with a few guests, but are lost if the number of guests increases. But I liked her, she has an extraordinary talent which she keeps on exercising, and so I gave her a second chance and the success was extraordinary. Now we’re partners».

I dined at Alice (the old establishment will leave way to the new one late in the summer) on the night before the conference, on Thursday 4th April. The dinner was great, like many people had anticipated. I noticed a lively and sincere strength, a renovated freedom of expression. Closing with the past and running the place by herself has given more shine to the actions of Viviana who no longer needs to mediate with anyone else, she does what she believes is right.

All the news since early in April. When I arrived, I immediately wondered where I had seen the young face of a twenty-something year old from Colombia who has spent some 15 years in Italy. Well I had seen Luis Diaz, that’s his name, at Seta at the Mandarin Oriental in Milan. And following him, there’s another ex-MandarinGianluca De Marco from Brianza. Varese laughed about it during the conference («It’s almost absurd, for me two hire these two good looking men. Now there’s more equality and it sounds so strange»). Indeed, the dining room at Alice was in the past just meant for female talents when in fact there should be no gender differences in the workplace. In any case, the two male maîtres are matched by two female sommeliers, starting from Federica Radice, ex Triennale Osteria, ex Gong, and Jessica Rocchi, a great passion for cocktails, like Keisuke Koga. All together, they will widen the range. For instance, there’s still a limited presence of France, but only for a few more months, and they will also add herbal teas and mixology.

Spring & summer, spring soup of peas, asparagus and broad beans, mint sauce by Viviana Varese

Spring & summer, spring soup of peas, asparagus and broad beans, mint sauce by Viviana Varese

Then there’s the kitchen: Ida Brenna, who arrived seven years ago as pastry chef, has grown so much over the years that she’s also become the sous-chef. Then there’s Matteo Carnaggi and Emiliano Neri. But there’s more news coming up: «I’m increasing the staff because when we reopen after the renovations, there will be no more closing day. We will be open seven days a week, at lunchtime and in the evening. Varese has 52 employees, and it’s never easy to manage such numbers in such a unique industry like the restaurant one. Aside from the 700-square-metre organic vegetable garden near Rozzano and the menu which will reduce the serving time («In two hours you must serve everything including the dessert, people are fed up with dining until late at night»), Viviana is looking for a new system in the kitchen: «Militarised brigades are a thing of the past. We must fight depression, which often hits us cooks. There’s no such thing like bullying here, and interns are respected».

Polp Fiction, another dish by Viviana Varese: roasted octopus with French beans, taccole, potatoes, trombetta courgettes, compote of citron and light pesto 

Polp Fiction, another dish by Viviana Varese: roasted octopus with French beans, taccole, potatoes, trombetta courgettes, compote of citron and light pesto 

But there’s more. The chef vents: «I’m fed up with Italian cooks who present themselves as cool and you soon realise they have no intention to work, they want to do nothing. Enough of this. I now only focus on those who really need to work. I’m training two exceptional guys, and a third one will arrive soon. Wally comes from Ghana and Sedu from Somalia. They fled the war, one lost an ear, the other was shot. They experienced hell in the camps in Libya and on the boats to Italy. They know hunger and death, like the 19-year-old Afghan that I’m about to add to the team». I’m ashamed of the racist politics and propaganda we have in Italy right now. Luckily, there are stories like this, which make me believe that not everything is lost.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


Affari di Gola di Paolo Marchi

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