Chef Giovanni D’Amato of Ristorante Il Rigoletto, in the northern part of Italy’s Umbria region, was in Mumbai recently for the 4XFOUR, that aims to bring the best of gastronomy from around the world to prestigious venues in Asia, at the JW Marriott in Juhu. The chef’s restaurant, in Città di Castello, was awarded two Michelin stars, in 2002 and 2005, respectively.

D’Amato took us through some of his fondest food memories and his vision for the future of Italian cooking. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

Were you always interested in cooking?

My passion (for cooking) came from my family, and my grandparents have been the biggest influence in my life. I grew up eating at my grandparents’ trattoria and watching them cook with such passion. I always enjoyed the simple, traditional fare that was prepared with love by them. I remember enjoying the food in their trattoria and the huge feasts they used to cook up at home. This is what has been embedded in my heart and since then I have always prepared my food with that same passion. Passion towards what you do is the most important aspect of every profession, and from them I learnt passion for my cooking.

Even when I was a child, I was determined to become a great chef. I started my career by attending a hotel management school, but in the end I realized I wanted to be in the kitchen. I look up to my grandfather, who has always been my source of inspiration in the kitchen.

How do you describe your cooking style?

It is born out of my own personal experiences, without any outside influences. My family heritage has shaped my culinary career and who I am. I always believe in cooking from the heart—a quality I imbibed from my grandparents. That is what makes a great dish. In Italy, we say, it is easy to cook for anyone but a special dish can only come from a special chef. My cooking style has always been rooted in the traditional ways but as Italy is also deeply rooted in the arts, my dishes represent the traditional food combined with an artful presentation.

Across the world, people are talking about how new-world cuisines like Peruvian, Japanese and other Asian cuisines are outranking French and Italian cuisines in terms of popularity. What do you think of this new phenomenon?

I feel that Italian cooking will always have its own place even with newer cuisines being introduced. A lot of travellers from across the world come to Italy especially for the cuisine. The food is simple, fresh and tasty, and I think traditional Italian fare will never grow old irrespective of newer cuisines. Over the years, it has evolved, and Italians are proud of this evolution, but we always keep in mind our culture and heritage. We believe in looking at the past to move forward to the future.

What is modern Italian cuisine like?

A current trend that I see in terms of Italian cooking is the return of traditional food. The diners come to our restaurant so that they can enjoy a meal which reminds them of the food they’ve eaten at home in their childhood. Simple, yet distinct flavours are what people enjoy. Since they hardly cook at home these days, they want to eat a traditional meal at our restaurant.

What is it like to have your son Giovanni-Federico helping you at the restaurant?

Giovanni-Federico is my only son and he has practically grown up at our family restaurant. He learnt the tricks of the trade at a very young age. At our restaurant, we have two set menus—one created by me and one created by my son. My menu is a more traditional approach to Italian cooking whereas his menu explores modern interpretations of traditional Italian food.

Tell us about the most iconic Italian dishes.

How much of Italian cooking today is influenced by local farming? What is considered prized produce in the region you hail from?

We always use fresh local produce in Italian cooking, right from tomatoes to other seasonal vegetables. My dishes play around with cooked and raw ingredients, soft and crunchy textures, and cold and hot temperatures. That’s why the freshness of ingredients is extremely important. In Italy, I go to the market every morning to pick the best produce. I also go fishing and to the mountains to source meat. Seasonality is a major factor when it comes to sourcing, because even though certain ingredients may be available when they are not in season, they won’t taste as good as they should.

Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, oregano, traditional balsamic vinegar, scampi and prosciutto ham are the best local produce in my region. I use these ingredients in most of my dishes as they are versatile ingredients and add their own distinct flavours to my food. They are the pillars of traditional Italian food.

Apart from the restaurant, what other work do you keep yourself busy with?

I’ve written two books so far. One comprises classic Italian recipes and one book has recipe demonstrations. I would really like to pen down my autobiography. We (my son and I) would also like to work on a book with degustation menus.

Do you enjoy jet-setting across the world? Where would you like to take your Italian cooking next?

I travel across the world at least five-six times a year for work. I would like to take my food to Tokyo (Japan), South Africa, Germany and Geneva (Switzerland). In fact, I am travelling to Lebanon and France as well this year and I hope to make the most of it. When travelling abroad, I would like to work with the local produce to match my cooking recipes. This is the most sustainable way for each country, and a way to blend in the country’s resources with my cuisine.

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