Exclusive interview: Giacomo Bulleri

Luxos interviews Giacomo Bulleri, the head of a small gastronomic empire in Via Sottocorno in Milan

by 05 October 2010

Milan is a city of secrets and unassuming places, a city of treasures that require time and patience to discover. In cities like New York, Paris or London the delights of the city are close at hand, not so in Milan where they must be sought out by navigating the twisting side streets, or slipping into an off-limits cortile.

But what a wondrous occasion when an unexpected treasure is found, a secret garden, a corner patisserie, an architectural wonder, a rooftop bar. A small strip of Via Sottocorno is just such a discovery, where not one, but four little gems are waiting to be uncovered. A restaurant, a bistrot, a tabaccheria, and a patisserie, all the creations of Giacomo Bulleri, chef and Milan legend.

The 85-year old Giacomo has been in the restaurant industry for over seventy years, having started out in his uncle’s Turin-based restaurant in 1937. He subsequently opened his own pizzeria and rosticeria, before moving to ‘la gran Milan’ in 1958. Da Giacomo opened later that year on Via Gaetano Donizetti, where it remained for 34 years. Serving traditional Tuscan cuisine, Da Giacomo was popular with the international and Milanese elite from the beginning, attracting VIPs from the world of politics, fashion, and Hollywood.

After losing his lease in 1989, Giacomo decided to relocate to Via Sottocorno, and with the help of famed interior architects Renzo Mongiardino and Roberto Peregalli, created the beautiful art deco-inspired space in which Da Giacomo resides today. Two years ago, Giacomo created a small empire by opening Giacomo Bistrot, a Parisian-style café, a charming patisserie and a tabaccheria reminsescent of 1930s Turin. This year Giacomo’s domain is expanding even further with the opening of Giacomo restaurant in the Palazzo dell’Argenario, the future site of the Museo delle Arti del Novecento, and Giacomo bar in Palazzo Reale.

What inspired the creation of Giacomo Bistrot?

Essentially it was the desire to expand. Da Giacomo had simply become too small and we wanted to grow. The inspiration was the Parisian bistro, in which one can eat all day, seven days a week. There was really no preconceived notion of how the restaurant would look. The architects (Peragalli and Laura Sartori Rimini) spent two years collecting antiques from around the world, culminating in the traditional styling of the Bistrot.

Why did you decide to open the Bistrot, tabaccheria, and patisserie on Sottocorno?

The patisserie was born from the necessity to produce sweets for the restaurant and the bistro, especially to make our specialties, like the ‘bomba’. The tabaccheria is a small world unto itself, a niche shop, with exclusive perfumes and everything necessary for cigar smoking. The tabaccheria remains open until midnight, giving our restaurant clients the opportunity to shop after dinner. In addition, we have transformed the street. What was once a bad area is now a highly desirable neighborhood.

Can you tell us a bit about the new restaurant, Giacomo

The menu will be similar to Da Giacomo, classic Italian cuisine with a few innovations. The inauguration will be on 18 November, and should be a grand event. The building was built during the Fascist era in the 1930s. The restaurant will be on the first floor.

Having been in the restaurant industry for over 70 years, what changes have you noticed in the way people eat out?

Today everyone goes out to eat, eating at restaurants used to be confined to the elite. Also, people don’t eat big lunches anymore, and for dinner they want something savory, but light. Da Giacomo, for instance, began with a very meat-based menu, but over time we began to serve more fish, based on customers’ preferences. On the other hand, Giacomo Bistrot is heavily meat-based and traditional. Today people have a great need for the flavors of the past. Our clientele today is also more international, with many guests from China, Japan, and America.

What are your favorite dishes to cook? 

Piemonte has the best food in Italy: marvelous meats, truffles, risotto, Valdostana, Fassone. My favorite dish to make is fondue with truffle, with fontina cheese, a dish I learned in Turin. I also love to make ossobuco, which I still sometimes make at Da Giacomo. From Tuscan cuisine, I like steak Florentine and Acqua Cotta, a peasant dish made from leftovers, that we make at Da Giacomo in the winter months.

Who are your most memorable celebrity guests?

Queen Rania of Jordan, and John F. Kennedy, Jr.

Why do you believe Italian cuisine is so popular worldwide?

Because of its flavor, simplicity and taste. Yet, it can be difficult to make proper Italian dishes abroad without the right ingredients. Italian food is suffering though. In Italy people don’t want to eat Italian food. And abroad, well, we haven’t sold ourselves very well. Marsala from Sicily is often referred to as port because no one knows what Marsala is. The same goes for cheese, sparkling wine. We are a young country, poor, divided, with little sense of nation. No coherent past, and no national pride.

What do you feel is the future of the culinary scene in Milan?

I see a return to the past, but a renovated past: I believe that there is a need to revisit the past. One can go forward dumbly, but, like in fashion, it is necessary to constantly return to the styles that have come before, to revisit them: I think the future is this.