By David J Constable
Cover by Azzurra Primavera
My trips to Italy have been some of the most effervescent and liberating of my life. The food, the wine, the art, the women – fashion is credited rather too much. It isn’t merely the escape of Brexit Britain that thrills me, the will-we-wont-we mess of it all, the cabinet shuffle and reshuffle and frustrating merry-go-round of our leaders, but the fact that Italy is a glimpse into another purgatory. Nothing gets done in Italy, either. That, of course, is part of its pleasure. Doing something new would mean undoing something old and that would be a mistake.
And yet, there are some Italians who continue to innovate, their contrivances centring around pleasure: the food, the wine, the art, you get the gist of it. They created the Slow Food movement for extended lunches, and then, encouraged by its perennial success, widened it to a slow city movement. They flung open the doors to Eataly, a Circus Maximus promoting everything from manzo to mozzarella. There are 18 Eatalys in the country and a further 22 around the world, flogging pappardelle from Boston to Moscow. None of this is news to Italians, but to a visiting Brit brought up on a diet of bangers and bubble & squeak, it’s fresh and ingenious.
So it was that I returned to Italy and to Milan, visiting Eataly Smeraldo and the new restaurant of Viviana Varese. I’ll admit to having little knowledge of Viviana, other than she was a pocket-rocket chef, who accumulated techniques from across the globe, marking off stages in some of the world’s most celebrated kitchens. Then came her meeting with Sandra Ciciriello, which led to the opening of Alice Ristorante in Milan in 2007 and a Michelin-star in 2011. Other accolades followed, and now I’m here, in Milan, for something altogether different; for the rebranding, reopening and revolutionising of a common space but an unfamiliar name.
Alice Ristorante is no more, replaced now by VIVA. Viviana has used the opportunity to reopen to redecorate, installing artworks that bring a splash of dappled colour to dinner. Bright canvases adorn the walls, and multi-coloured perspex plastic hangs in front of the open kitchen and above a Kauri wood table, approximately 30,240 years old. The opening party at VIVA continued the creative theme, with Marco Nereo Rotelli’s luminous installation illuminating the Piazza XXV Aprile with the words “sustainability”, “sharing” and “synthetic city” bouncing off the walls. Viviana was somewhere in the kitchen, wrapped up in the revelry of it all, lost among chefs, friends who had travelled to Milan to support her. In total, 30 chefs took to the kitchen and various stationed stoves situated on the upper level of Eataly. I’m told later, that 8,000 bowls of food were served during the party and at least six times as much Champagne. As for the amount of Negronis, well… I had eleven, at the last count.
Walking this journey with Viviana is Ritu Dalmia, owner of the Italian restaurant Diva in Delhi and Cittamani and Spica in Milan. Together they present a formidable partnership, driven by an enthusiasm for flair, what Viviana calls “creative and operational synergy.” The formation of the new company VIVA was assisted with help from Ritu who, as part of the Riga Food Srl company with Analjit Singh, holds 20% of the shares, while Viviana controls the remainder. Both are driven by a recovery of ancient flavours, renewed in a contemporary style. They understand that food is about exciting the senses, representing each of their cultures through a lens – music, art, food, colour – and rotating ingredients in accordance with the seasons.
Both VIVA and Spica affirm the tight alliance of the chefs, with a menu at Spica rooted in the Indian-Italian-Peruvian-Mexican… cultures, celebrating the nostalgia of home and presenting the diner with a peek into the culinary lives of both, whether it’s a Keema pao from Mumbai or a Khao suey, a spicy coconut soup with noodles from Myanmar. The results are stories told through food; stories of a chef’s life, travels, inspiration and their journey up until now. The menu at VIVA reflects Viviana’s passion for quality produce from her vegetable garden, changing according to seasons like the Barbecued pumpkin and bay leaf ice cream dedicated to artist Kusama. I found the Spugna di mare: mussels in acidulated beurre noisette, Noto almonds and tarragon a particular highlight during the dinner at VIVA and Insuperabile: fine spaghetti with smoked broth, cuttlefish, clams and powdered tarallo a bowl that made me long for another, and another.
In this instance, doing something new for both chefs means a breakaway from the past, but not entirely forgetting about the past. There are lessons in the folds of history, lessons that propel you forward. Sometimes change is good, sometimes, change is necessary to evolve. But it isn’t always about going it alone, forging your own path; sometimes, having a friend on the journey with you can lead to unimaginable results. And here we have two chefs with two new restaurants from two very different backgrounds: two friends with everything ahead; united by creativity, by fun, by food, by art, by the challenge of it all. Two friends giving it a shot, inviting you along for the party – and what parties they throw!
VIVA Viviana Varese Ristorante
Piazza Venticinque Aprile, 10
20121 Milano (MI)
Tel: +39 02 4949 7340
Via Melzo, 9
20129 Milano (MI)
Tel: +39 02 8457 2974