Words by David J Constable
Photos courtesy of Thomas Piras
With the first national lockdown announcement that all restaurants in Italy most close by 6pm, the hospitality industry was dealt a heavy blow. Businesses were forced to adapt. Chefs and restaurants had no choice but to adjust where possible – if possible. The second lockdown has been different, although no less challenging. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this is make-or-break for many when you consider that a lot of restaurants are only open for dinner service, while others depend on night-time drinking and the sale of alcohol to cover rent and wages.
With lockdown 2.0 now lifted (once again, for lunch service only), will the industry be in positive, festive mood? A good December can mean everything to restaurants – the Christmas period bringing in enough to cover the difficult months – but things won’t be the same this year.
The COVID pandemic has revealed the fragility of the hospitality industry, from Starbucks to kebab shops, food trucks to Michelin dining. All of a sudden, and without warning, people find themselves homebound and looking for new options for a good night in. For the team at Contraste in Milan – who have only ever been open for dinner service – attention once again turns to an earlier serving, but they also have business ambitions far beyond the dining room.
Thomas Piras, one of the three founding members and management, along with Simon Press and Contraste head chef, Matias Perdomo, calls it “a period of reconstruction and diversification.” He says, “I hope people are learning to adapt and are better prepared now?” The primary concern, however, is the uncertainty surrounding government decisions. Are the government going to say: you can only open on these days or announce another curfew? We don’t know. No one knows. “We must stick to our values; that is what we are all about,” says Piras. “We considered takeout options, but that’s not Contraste. Takeaway is not a substitute for eating at the restaurant. Contraste has always been for the people. If it was a restaurant and an experience developed to make money, then we’d be closed by now – trust me! You do it because you love it, you believe in it.”
Piras continues, “Even before this pandemic, we were working on launching new projects. This is not a reset or change of direction, but an opportunity to broaden ourselves and offer something new to the people. We know that our trade isn’t just tourists and office workers, but locals too. We wish to support our neighbourhood by offering them something that is quality and above all, affordable”.
With that in mind, the team have launched EXIT, a kiosk-restaurant serving high-quality food at a lower cost. “Launching EXIT has kept us creative and engaged,” he says. “We wish to elevate mainstream food, but there’s no reason why the cost should rise, too! This is about supporting our staff and presenting new options to the public”.
But EXIT isn’t the only business opportunity, the businessmen have up their sleeve. They have also launched ROC (Rosticceria Origine Contraste), opening December 10th, which Piras tells me “is like opening a second restaurant except there is no in-house dining.” Instead, the online platform will operate as a traditional grocery store, offering customers a collect and delivery service – using organic and sustainable packaging – with a four-course menu priced at an affordable 30 Euros. “It’s a more basic offering than Contraste, family at-home meals, with everything is prepared onsite with a focus on freshness. It winks at the neighbourhood rotisserie, and will be something sincere, generous and extremely casual.” Perdomo and his kitchen team dedicate hundreds of hours to researching, sourcing and applying the finest ingredients, perfecting it on the plate for the customer; and that commitment remains in place here.
The takeaway and delivery market continues to grow, in Milan and beyond. The fast-food arm of this industry is congested, even more so since the pandemic with everyone trapped at home, looking at their phones. Big players like UberEats, Deliveroo, Glovo and the supermarket chains have increased their presence in an attempt to consume the market. Now, operating delivery and door-to-door is a requirement.
“That’s what I mean by adapting” says Piras. “For us, ROC have been ideas for a long time, way before COVID. We have long seen the advantages of offering and preparing such a service. It has also meant that we have been able to keep our staff employed, rotating the kitchen team; so they’ll work four days in the Contraste kitchen, one day in the lab kitchen and then have their two days rest. Contraste has 24 staff, with only two from the Lombard capital, so we needed to make sure that everyone was safe and could remain at work”.
And still, there’s more! The trio opened their empanada takeout, Empanadas del Flaco, in central Milan in early-December, offering six flavour varieties of the popular South American street food. “These are great for family meals, office orders or on-to-go snacks. Matias is Uruguayan and Simon is Argentinean, so we wanted to bring boca to Milan. We’re working with Glovo to deliver. We actually modified a semi-industrial ravioli machine and can produce 1,200 empanadas an hour!” he beams. “The design is very much like ravioli, actually, a delicate casing holding a mixture of hot filling within”.
As we prepare for Christmas and a much-welcomed, COVID-free New Year, it’ll be a bumpy ride for many within the hospitality industry. Closures, consolidations and job losses are all a reality. The dining world has, undoubtedly, been radically changed, and yet, there are those who have, must and will adapt: inside-outside dining; no to dinners but yes to long, leisurely lunches; fine-dining replaced by ANY dining – even the sprauncy, la-di-da escargot giving way to, say, something such as empanadas in Milan! For Piras and the team at Contraste, there is no respite, no now what, only “reconstruction” and “diversification”. And what better message is there as we move into another year.
Via Giuseppe Meda, 2
20136 Milano (MI)
Tel: 02 4953 6597
Exit – Gastronomia Urbana
20122 Milano (MI)
Tel: 02 3599 9080
Empanadas del Flaco
via San Maurilio 4
20123 Milano (MI)
Tel: 02 4341 3521