I was recently contacted by Ana Maria from all about italian food to do an interview about how I became an Italian foodie. I’ve copied and pasted the interview for your reading pleasure. You can also read the interview here
1) Lorraine, when did you decide to leave your high-flying career to join your husband’s family restaurant? What was it like in the beginning? Did you soon feel comfortable and at home with them?
I have a degree in business and marketing so as a result I went straight into that line of work. I was working for a frozen food company that specialised in setting up deli’s and hot counters in petrol stations and supermarkets, basically teaching staff how to cook sausage rolls and wedges and although I loved my job, my passion for food was a bit wasted on frozen junk food. My partner Bruno had opened a pizzeria adjacent to his parents restaurant and it was doing really well, pizza hut and dominos hadn’t arrived in Ireland yet. We saw a big gap in the market for a take-away, deli style italian shop focusing on fresh home-made italian food. An opportunity came up in the area where we live so we decided between his cooking experience and my marketing and business experience we should take the plunge and we did.
I had a great passion for food but wasn’t great at cooking so while everything was being put into place for our new venture I went into the main restaurant with my mother in law for a couple of months for “bootcamp”. It was so tough at the begining as I had left my big high flying career driving around in my company car everyday being the boss to being “thrown” into the kitchen and not even knowing how to cook pasta al dente. Italians don’t have much patience for ignorance when it comes to the basics of Italian food so there was a few tears as I’m a bit of a perfectionist and want to be able to do everything but I got there in the end.
2) Was it easy to work with food (it’s different from cooking at home for your own family)?
Because of my job I had a very good knowledge of all the science “stuff” that goes with running a food business, Haccp, turnover, margins, staff, waste etc. For me my biggest challenge was to be able to cook like an Italian! Once I got the basics right and began to understand the food and realised it’s not just about writing down the methods and ingredients, but about understanding what it’s all about I found it just came very naturally. I started to buy a lot of Italian cookbooks and to try a new recipe every week, I always preferred the books with photos just so I knew I was doing it right. I had the biggest critic at home anyway in Bruno who would always tell me where I went wrong or the majority of the time how good it was.
3) You have a child – how much Italian culture is incorporated in your home life? Do you also speak Italian at home?
I have a 100% italian child called Alessia, I often wonder does she have any Irish in her at all, she looks Italian and acts like an Italian, she has the temperment:). Everything in our home life centres around the Italian culture, because the whole family live here and there are 3 Italian food businesses, our lives are consumed by it. Nonna and Nonno just live down the road and we see them on a regular basis, the whole family go to their house every Sunday for lunch where we enjoy Nonna’s home-made pasta ad of course Christmas day for the feast. She often drops food into us during the week too if she has made parmigiana or cannelloni.
Alessia doesn’t speak Italian at home as Bruno was born here and although he speaks it fluently his first language is English so that’s what he’s more comfortable with so he doesn’t really speak to her in Italian. I do have a few Italian nursery rhyme cd’s which I have played in the car since she was born so she knows all the italian songs like Giro Tondo etc and she has very good pronunciation. We also have the Italian TV channels at home so she does hear it and her grandparents speak to her in Italian a lot too. She has visited Italy quite a few times since she was born so I hope she picks it up quite easily as she grows up.
4) What made you decide to open a Deli? I can imagine how difficult it must be to find good, Italian products; as an Italian food-lover, you know how important the ingredients, (good ones!) are.
There is a serious lack of good home-made food establishments in Ireland, this was the main reason we decided to do it as most places just buy in the ingredients whereas we make as much as we can from scratch. It is also very difficult to find good pizza here as most people tend to go for the chains like Dominos and Pizza Hut so we hoped to fill that gap in the market. It hasn’t been too difficult to source products, when my in-laws opened their restaurant 30 years ago they could only buy olive oil in a chemist so times have changed since then. We have 4 different Italian suppliers and buy the best from each of them, our focus is always on quality so we buy the best we can. The main problem here is fresh produce, we don’t have the weather so we don’t have good vegetables. I’m always amazed at the veg markets when I’m in Italy and I’m always so jealous of the food they have on their doorstep. We use a lot of pesto and have to make it about 4 times a week using 1kg at a time, it comes from Israel, I’ve tasted basil from Zio Bruno’s garden in Genova and there is no comparison but that’s just the way it is and we have to do the best we can with what we have.
5) How is Italian food accepted in Limerick? How do your customers buy food? Do they buy it as they would any other kind of food? Do they come with a clear idea of what they want, or do they approach you for assistance?
It’s ok, there wouldn’t be a proper understanding of Italian food here, I would never have understood it myself had I not met Bruno as food was not an important part of our lives growing up, it was just fuel.We try to stay as authentic as we can, to be honest when we opened first we were a bit naive and thought we would be able to sell authentic Italian food no problem but we learned fast after throwing out lots of leftover rice balls, cannelloni etc so we tweaked our menu to suit the Irish tastes because at the end of the day we are in Ireland, we are a business and we have to make money. I have noticed a change over the last couple of years and people are more open to trying new things thanks to Ryanair and cheap flights, a lot more are visiting Italy on a regular basis so are becoming more aware of what real Italian food is and we find that people are more interested in “proper” Italian food now.
6) You are an Italian food expert, living outside Italy, which allows you a wide vision of this reality, maybe less evident for an insider. How would you summarize the success of Italian food around the world? Do you believe that it is because it encompasses only simple dishes, or because it has flavors that really please different cultures?
I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, my chocolate amaretto cake flopped yesterday:) There is so much to learn about Italian food and the regionality of cooking is a huge area to learn more about. I often feel like I know so little even though any Italian friends I have cooked for have always been impressed by my cooking so I have a little knowledge I suppose. I do notice a big difference between me and Bruno, because he was brought up on Italian food, he has a far better understanding of Italian food which I will never have and he has a much better palatte than me even though I probably cook better than him at home, don’t tell him that;). I notice with Italians they tend to cook their regional dishes and the dishes they grew up with and stick with these whereas I’m always looking for something new to try so I would be more adventurous. They’re very stubborn when it comes to their way of cooking too, it’s their way or no way:)
Unfortunately in Ireland I would say Chinese food is probably more popular than Italian food which is a shame. For me the success of Italian food is the passion that surrounds it. I think it’s the focus on the quality of ingredients whether you’re making something very elaborate and gourmet or just a simple tomato sauce. I love the fact that you can take the simplest of ingredients and produce the most fantastic dish – alio, olio e pepperocino, This dish still amazes me everytime I have it or a simple pizza margherita.I started the blog to try and pass on everything I have learned about Italian food, if I can do it, anyone can. I have also started a Facebook cookalong where I give people the shopping list, letting them know where to buy the best ingredients in our area and I give the recipe in step by step photos just to get people cooking Italian food and see how simple it is. It’s going really well and next up is penne all vodka.
7) To adopt another culture is not an easy task, particularly an Italian one that is so richly traditional, that it’s sometimes difficult to maintain one’s own native customs. How do you combine Italian and Irish traditions and customs, especially regarding food?
I have no Irish traditions or customs left, they have been beaten out of me:) To be honest with the business and the blog, my life just centres around Italian food. I only cook Italian food, I only have Italian cookery books, my favourite beer is Peroni, we only buy Italian wine, I don’t drink cappuccino after 11, I only have espresso after dinner. We never miss Sunday lunch, and we only go to Italy on holidays so I am a true Italophile:)
8) When you cook for friends, do you prepare Italian food? What do you usually cook?
Yes, I try to keep it quite simple and something to suit all tastes. I normally do a pasta dish and then maybe a roast chicken with roast potatoes with rosemary and peas with pancetta. This always seems to go down well and suits everyone.
9) What do you believe is a “must do, see and taste” in Italy? What would you suggest to an Irish person who travels to Italy?
My main advice would be to try everything. Not every restaurant is going to have Carbonara, find out what the local speciality is and try it. Personally I would love to do a gastronomic tour of Italy learning about the specialities of different regions, there is much to learn, even when it comes to something like risotto rice there are so many different types and standards that I know nothing of. Someday when I retire I might travel the length and breadth of Italy and just “learn”……
10) An obvious but nevertheless important question; among all the inviting recipes you have on your blog, do you have a favorite?
To be honest I love everything, there is not one dish I don’t like but if I had to choose a favourite it would be a toss up between spaghetti alio olio e peperoncino or linguine alle vongole:)