By his own description, there are three things that Italian chef Leonardo Amoruso loves: food, his kitchen and travel. But he may be missing a few ingredients from that recipe of love, because after an hour listening to him speak, it seems that list should have a few more items on it.
Bulgaria, at least, should be added to it, going by the 63-year-old’s praise for his life in the capital city Sofia. Music, too. And theatre; there was a 10-year interval in his career in the restaurant business when his day job was acting.
This latter interval, Amoruso says, taught him a lot about connecting with people. For him, that is important because he routinely emerges from his kitchen to talk to the customers seated at his tables, to ask them about their likes and dislikes in cuisine, and then to return to his domain within to prepare something that is not on the menu, quite probably something inspired by the dishes of the region of Italy from which he comes.
Mutual friends suggested that Amoruso would be a suitable subject for a personality interview, and they were right. Personality, after all, is what makes a chef (in masterful cooking, of course, the other element is a natural understanding of chemistry, but that is just my theory).
Amoruso started out in the restaurant business about 40 years ago, when he decided to go toLondon– theLondonof the latter days of the Swinging 60s – to learn English and to begin to learn his trade. After three years in theUnited Kingdom, he moved on to theUnited States, the east coast, the west coast,California,Los Angeles,San Francisco, cruise liners. His work then, however, was not in the kitchen but as a waiter and as a sommelier.
The year 1984 saw him return toItalyand, as he tells, begin the new experience of learning to cook. Among his most important tutors wasFrance’s Marc Veyrat, who taught him about French and international cuisine. So the young Amoruso opened a French restaurant, but closed it two years later and moved toRome. He had learnt, he says, a lesson in his life: “I am Italian and should not be preparing French cuisine, I should be doing something that is from my country”.
InRome, he opened an establishment near the Santa Maria Maggiore, entitling the restaurant in a 600-year-old building the Cappellina di San Luigi. Many of his customers came from the world of politics and of the theatre, bringing success to the restaurant.
After a year, he moved on again, to his home town of Mola di Bari, opening a restaurant called Van Westerhout, for the composer (of Flemish origin), Niccolò. The choice of name was a nod to Amoruso’s love of music and an honour to his town’s adoptive son. Fifteen years of success followed, as did a series of invitations for involvement in restaurants in various places, among the most recent of these exercises being at a place near St Stephen’s Green inDublin.
And one day the call came to come toBulgaria. His reaction? “I’d never been in a Balkan country, so I should love to trySofia.” Six months at the Lavazza Café on Vitosha Boulevard saw him orchestrate changes, but importantly also brought him the friendship of Francesco – Franco – Frattini, a leading local Italian businessman, of the Alias Group and Confindustria Bulgaria (and not to be confused with the Italian former European Commissioner and former cabinet minister).
Frattini is at the table with us, and their rapport is obvious, founded on a love of conversation, of classical music and jazz. Eight months ago, that rapport produced the restaurant where we are sitting, Caruso in Dobroudzha Street, where Amoruso presides over the kitchen, engages with customers, sometimes sings, does many things except one thing – offer Bulgarian cuisine on his menu.
“When you are in here,” Amoruso says, gesturing at the well-appointed interior, “you are not inSofia. You are inItaly.” He adds that his cuisine is Italian, and not as many understand it, the clichéd idea of Italian cuisine being lasagna, spaghetti bolognaise and pesto.
His day starts at the market, choosing fresh ingredients – vegetables, meat (he complains, justifiably, of the difficulty of getting good quality fresh fish inSofia) – and then on to the restaurant from about 11am. His regulars, many from the Italian diplomatic and business community, other notable expatriates from other countries, as well as a healthy slice of Bulgarians, are accustomed to Amoruso’s appearances in their midst to discuss with them what they would like to eat (and drink – from his selection of Italian wines); newcomers sometimes, as noted, are slightly bemused at the direct interface with the man who will be preparing their meal.
He confesses a slight frustration with the fact that he has not yet learnt Bulgarian, meaning that if a customer does not speak English or Italian, Amoruso has to use a waiter as interpreter, which he feels is an awkward barrier to communication in the vital matter of food.
“I change the menu all the time, every day, every week. I like to offer food that is good to every customer, whether they are rich or not,” he says. An average meal, he says, with a glass of good wine, comes in at about 35 to 40 leva. And, again, the personal touch; he says that when he looks at a customer, even for the first time, many years of experience and that grasp of the human connection already gives him an idea of what they would like to eat.
I must ask him the question that most expatriates find rather dreary: Does he miss his home country?
At 63, he says, he is living in the moment, not as in his youth having the moments that compel him to move on. He admits to missing his two daughters, both grown up and living many, many kilometres away; there is a girlfriend too, teaching classical piano, also many kilometres away. He and Frattini banter about how long he should be staying; there is a reference to a promise to stick around for at least five years. Chi può dirlo?
“I find my life inBulgariato be very comfortable, very calm. I am 63, and I stop thinking, I start living,” he smiles.