'A lot of restaurant managers and chefs from Dublin told me, if I came here, you will be very, very successful," says Tuscan-born chef Luca Mazza. "Why? Because the food was very bad in restaurants here at the time." We're sitting in the plush, speak-easy style basement of Pacino's, just a stone's throw from Dublin's Trinity College, where Luca has been chef-patron for three years. "But they also said Dublin is a very beautiful city, with a lot of international companies and a lot of young people," he adds with disarming Italian charm.
While based in London for the first decade of the millennium, Luca had established himself as a "reorganiser" of restaurants who could put struggling operations back on the road to success, but the scale and chaos of the city had been wearing thin. In 2010, he took up residence in Ballyhaunis, Co Roscommon, swapping his daily metropolis commute for the companionship of quiet stone walls and zen-like cows. Roscommon might seem an unusual choice for a chef who had cooked at Michelin-star level, and for Armani and Ferrari executives in Milan, but Luca had a plan: "First go to the countryside to understand the people before moving to the city."
As predicted, Luca did become very, very successful, with the late Paolo Tullio awarding him 10/10 for his food during an 18-month stint as head chef at Pinocchio Restaurant in Dublin's Ranelagh and hailing him as the best Italian chef in Ireland in 2012. Luca had been no stranger to accolades throughout his career: the Dutch food critic Johannes van Dam had appointed him "king of the Italian cuisine in Amsterdam" and OK! Magazine named him as one of the best Italian chefs in England in a dedicated six-page spread.
But Paolo's appreciation meant a lot to his fellow Italian, and a close friendship was born. "He told me, 'Thank you for cooking for me. Everything was absolutely perfect'," Luca recalls. "He understood that I'm like an iceberg - behind, there is a lot. To be an iceberg, it's not just casual or because you're born like this or you're lucky. You have to shape yourself over years of study and commit yourself very much."
Luca aspires to the motto coined by another fellow countryman, Leonardo da Vinci, that "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication". But achieving perfect simplicity requires a dogged determination to settle for nothing less than the very best way to execute something. "To be a great chef, you have to study, to learn the basics," he says."To get the right tomato sauce for pasta, there is a lot to know. You find a lot of recipes in the books, but you must study a lot of books and finally from one to two hundred recipes of the same sauce you understand which is the right one."
Luca's official studies took place in Milan's culinary colleges and universities, and his formal training in some of the best hotels and restaurants around Venice and Lake Garda. But the young chef's early training had begun at the tender age of six or seven, when he spent summer holidays helping his grandfather Dante in his bakery in the small Tuscan city of Arezzo.
It was there that Luca learnt the true secret to great cooking. At just seven years of age, Luca was tasked with "looking after" the six or seven individual porchetta - whole pigs that could weigh up to 70kg each - that local families would bring to the bakery to slow-roast on a Sunday as the large ovens cooled down from a night's baking. "It was a big responsibility to be porchetta man!"
Thankfully the budding chef proved up for the job of watching over the roasting meat, basting it with wine or beer, turning it when necessary. "That's the secret when you want to cook something really nice: to 'look after'," he explains. "Because it is your love, your heart inside - this is the most important ingredient."
That core lesson would reappear in many guises throughout his career: the importance of stirring sauces regularly for even cooking, or of not wasting anything but rather using the pan juices of a roast chicken to flavour other dishes. "Today many young chefs, they buy the best ingredients, they put in the oven and set up the timing and then they go, and then in one hour they think it's ready, but the flavours, they are not the same," he says. "The old generation, they really knew how to cook."
Besides, Luca reminds me, Italian cuisine was rarely based on expensive ingredients, except for in certain historically-rich cities. "Paolo Tullio was always talking about the spaghetti carbonara: no cream, no this, no that. And he was right," Luca ventures. "But if we go more deep into the carbonara recipe, we see that there are some cities, like Modena in northern Italy, where their recipe has the cream - because in the 1500s, Modena was one of the richest cities in Italy and all their recipes were very, very rich."
The fact there is no one right way to cook a single Italian recipe, but rather many authentic regional ways, is one of the reasons that you'll find Italians arguing about food at great length. "Carbonara is a codified recipe but there are no books telling you which is the right recipe, you understand only from experience which is the right one."
But of course, when Italians discuss food, they do not confine themselves to the cooking of it. When I ask Luca for simple things home-cooks can do to improve their cooking, his response ranges from tips on sourcing ingredients ("talk to your butcher and he can give you nice tips, and always buy dark red meat") to stocking your fridge ("don't buy too much - half full is better") by way of good digestion ("eat at regular times; don't eat before going to sleep; eat mature cheese not fresh; cut down on sugar and eat butter and oil because our body needs the energy from the fat, not the sugar").
Yes, yes, I persist, but what about cooking tips? Then I realise that, for Luca, it is impossible to separate the cooking from the broader food picture.
"Yes!" he exclaims. "In Italy, food is a part of our daily routine. We don't start to cook the pasta in the moment the water is boiling, we start it in the morning. We wake up and say, 'What we eat tonight?' And then, after, we can think about going to work!"
Lucky Luca then, that his work also involves thinking about cooking. So what's next for this chef that is always thinking about what's next?
For now, Luca is very happy to call Dublin home. "After the recession, people started to spend their money in a better way, and so the quality of restaurants started to go up and the prices down," he enthuses. "Here today, you can see a lot of very beautiful restaurants. It's incredible, the change in just three, four years."
Luca enjoys cooking for Irish people, who he believes have developed excellent critical palates. "Today, the Irish people know Italian food better than many Italians, because they go a lot to Italy: they go to Sicily, they go to Napoli, they go to Sardinia."
As for Luca's own travel plans, he has a dream to keep one foot here in Ireland but to look for somewhere to place another foot - Brazil perhaps. And in the longer term, he looks forward to reuniting with his old friend Paolo Tullio: "He was a beautiful man. When I think about him I just have a big smile. I am sure that when I pass away, I will cook for him again, somewhere."
Luca's tips for dinner parties
● Never cook for more than five friends (plus yourself) - you have the dishes for six people, the cutlery, the space at your table and in your oven to cook for six people.
● Don't try and surprise your guests - trying something new doesn't work. No recipe ever tells you all you need to know. Cook what you know and what you're good at. Keep it informal so that the emphasis is on socialising.
● Keep it simple, for example, cook six fillets of salmon at 220°C, bake skin-up so that the fat from the skin runs down into the fish and keeps it nice and moist. Serve them in the middle of the table with some simple vegetables and a really nice bottle of wine, and let people help themselves.
Pasta and cannellini bean soup
2 tbsp (2 turns around the pan) extra-virgin olive oil
40g (about 3 slices) pancetta
1 fresh Italian sausage, chopped in big pieces
½ litre of chicken stock
5 tbsp of Napoli tomato sauce
400g of cannellini beans
1 large fresh (or dried) bay leaf
1 tsp of fresh (or dry) oregano
½ medium-sized boiled potato, chopped
1 red chilli, chopped
1 clove of garlic, chopped
80g of any kind of dry pasta (penne, tagliatelle, spaghetti or ziti)
5 cherry tomatoes
Approx 10 fennel seeds
4 leaves of fresh basil
Handful of parsley, chopped
2 large black olives
Parmesan, to sprinkle
2 slices of grilled rustic bread
Heat a deep pot over medium-high heat and add the oil, pancetta and fresh sausage. Brown the sausage and pancetta bits lightly, and add the chicken stock, tomato sauce, beans, bay leaf, oregano, capers, the chopped potato, red chilli and garlic. Raise the heat to high, break the pasta into the soup and add one tea cup of water. Bring soup to a gentle boil and after the pasta is cooked, stop the heat. Let the soup rest for a couple of minutes and finish with cherry tomatoes cut in halves, fennel seeds, basil, chopped parsley and black olives. Serve the soup in two plates and garnish with Parmesan, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, black pepper and the rustic bread.
History of this dish
Pasta e fagioli, meaning 'pasta and beans', is a traditional meatless Italian dish. Like many other Italian favourites, such as pizza and polenta, the dish started as a peasant dish composed of inexpensive ingredients. Today, it can be widely found, even in restaurants that do not specialise in Italian cuisine. It is often pronounced pasta 'fazool' in the United States, which comes from the pronunciation of beans in the Neapolitan language. Pasta e fagioli is commonly made using cannellini or borlotti beans and some type of small pasta, such as elbow macaroni or ditalini. The base is generally olive oil, garlic, minced onion, and spices, along with stewed tomato or tomato paste. Some variations do not include tomatoes at all, and are made from a broth. Modern restaurant recipes may be vegetarian or include an animal-based stock, most commonly chicken, or meat such as prosciutto.
Pork loin medallions topped with Parma ham and sage
Saltimbocca (Italian for 'jumps in the mouth') is a dish popular in Italy, made of veal lined or topped with Parma ham and sage or basil. In this recipe, instead of veal we use loin of pork which is more tasty and easier to find in the shop.
6 thinly sliced pork loin medallions (around 80g each)
6 thinly sliced Parma ham slices
6 large leaves of sage
6 wooden toothpicks
Half a glass of good quality white wine (Pinot Grigio is suggested)
Half a glass of chicken stock
Salt and black pepper
Olive oil for cooking
Mash potatoes to serve
Lay the pork medallions on a clean surface, top each one with a slice of Parma ham and place one leaf of sage in the centre.
Secure the toppings to each medallion with a wooden toothpick. Roll each one in flour and lay all of them in a large pan with olive oil. Cook the side with the Parma ham and sage first. When you get a caramelised colour, turn the medallions and cook until both sides have the same colour.
Add the wine, chicken stock, and salt and pepper. Let it cook - be very careful as the meat cooks very fast. Plate your medallions but leave the sauce to cook for a few minutes longer to get the right consistency and flavour. When finished, pour it gently over the medallions, with the mashed potatoes as a side. Top with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and your dish is ready.
Ps: In Italy we used to add warm milk, butter and grated nutmeg to the mashed potatoes. The milk is much lighter than using cream.