Home restaurants, similar to supper/dining clubs and underground/pop-up restaurants, have been taking off in Italy in recent years. While regulated by the Italian government, home restaurants are remarkably uncomplicated to set up here, at least for now. Home restaurateurs currently operate like freelancers; their profits may not exceed the yearly allowance for this earnings category (about 5,000 euros), yet no special permit or license is required. All you need is a kitchen, a means to promote your business and take reservations, and, of course, cooking skills impressive enough to draw paying customers to your home. The movement so far appears fuelled in large part by consumer demand for reasonably-priced, quality dining out options. Not unlike the sagra then, in a way home restaurants reflect that so Italian belief in food—good, tasty, inexpensive food—as a birthright. Although, one Italian media source did refer to them as typical ‘hipster’ nonsense. That made me laugh.
With at least a decade’s head start on Italy, the alternative restaurant movements in the U.S. and U.K., on the other hand, are today driven more by the desire of aspiring (or sometimes veteran) chefs to create and experiment in a restriction-free venue, while garnering a following of diners seeking novel, cutting-edge eating experiences. At times these rave-reminiscent food events beget an aura of exclusivity, as attested to by their secret or unconventional locations (think sleek renovated warehouses and chic flats over homely dining rooms) as well as the figure on the final check—and in this respect differ quite a lot from their Italian counterparts, generally. The press has described customers willing to overcome the obstacles required to dine at pop-ups and undergrounds as adventurous, novelty-seeking, avant-garde, and so on. Personally, I smell a touch of pretentiousness in the whole business, yet to be fair should withhold judgement until I’ve had a chance to attend one. No doubt they are a great opportunity for gifted chefs.
Back to the boot. Making headlines this week is a wonderful story about Leonilda Tomasinelli, who is launching her own home restaurant in Genoa’s Albaro neighborhood tomorrow, which also happens to be her 96th birthday. Born in 1919, ‘Nonna Leo’ was called upon to cook for the family from a very young age (she is the oldest of five sisters). It’s safe to say this gal’s got skills, in short. Her menu will feature Ligurian specialties such as le seppie con i piselli (a savory stew-like soup of squid and peas), lo stoccafisso accomodato (a kind of fish stew), la panissa (hard to describe—like cubes of cooked chickpea flour dough), il tocco alla genovese (a meat ragù), focaccia di Recco (cheese-stuffed focaccia), la farinata (chickpea flour flatbread), and la torta Sacripantina (a cream-filled soft cake). Nonna Leo makes her own pasta, naturally, and uses an old-fashioned mortar and pestle to make her pesto and walnut sauce.
Reservations can be made on Nonna Leo’s website. And here she is talking about why she opened her home restaurant: namely, because we no longer eat or cook like we used to in days past, she says. Everything is premade. Pasta, sauces, bread, soups, et cetera are no longer prepared as they should be—except at home. While holding a 19th-century cookbook of Ligurian cuisine that belonged her grandmother, Nonna Leo says she wants to leave these recipes and traditions to her grandchildren so they will live on. Viva Nonna Leo!