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Chef Interview: Federico Sali at Tinello

June 1, 2013

Max and Federico Sali

Max and Federico Sali

Not far from Sloane Square, in Pimlico Road, you can experience a little bit of magic: you can walk through some glass doors and find yourself transported to beautiful Tuscany. Exposed red bricks on one wall, a wooden floor, Tinellotinello is Italian for dining room – combines chic sophistication with informal homeliness in a way that always appeals so strongly to me. Here you can relax, unwind, feel at home … and you will also eat some of the best Tuscan food found outside of Italy. In fact, really, it’s so good, you’ll feel you are in Italy.

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Brothers Max and Federico Sali opened Tinello in 2010. Both came from Locanda Locatelli where Federico was head chef and Max the sommelier. Giorgio Locatelli is part owner of Tinello. All this tells you the Salis are very serious about their cooking and their wine and if it raises expectations as you walk through that glass door, all I can say is, you won’t be disappointed.

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Yesterday I went along to Tinello to have lunch with Federico and talk to him about his cooking life. Federico was sat at a table with his three-year-old daughter Isabella who was happily tucking into a plate of pappardelle with ragu. It was Federico’s day off from the kitchen and his day for looking after Isabella. This immediately told me everything about the philosophy of the Salis and their desire to not only create a family-run Tuscan restaurant with all the welcome and good feeling that promises, but for the restaurant itself to work on a family level. A restaurant run by a family adds value, Federico told me. In a big city like London, a sense of familiarity is lost and things become impersonal. He and Max wanted to create a restaurant where people would feel they were entering a home. Well, it has to be said that if it’s a Tuscan home, it reflects that inimitable Italian style that makes the Italians fashion and design leaders of the world rather than a rustic Tuscan-in-the-hills home, but what makes you really feel at home is the warmth of the brothers and staff as you enter their world.

When did Federico decide to become a chef, I asked him. Something just clicked when he was about 12, he told me, and he knew that’s what he wanted to do. No one else in his family had been chefs. However, his passion and ambition was so strong his father totally supported him and helped him get into cookery school at the age of 14. The school was a 2-hour drive away and his father would drive him to a flat where he lived during the week and pick him up on a Saturday. I thought this was a pretty amazing story: how many fathers would allow their 14 year old sons to make such a major decision about their lives and fully support them in this way. The support has paid off. Fourteen year old boys really can know what is right for them!

During the long school holidays – 3 months – Federico would work. His first job at the age of 15 was at Vipore, a restaurant near Lucca with a Michelin star. Once school was finished, he got a job at a hotel in northern Italy and then had to do his military service. His brother Max, meanwhile, had studied wine and management at college and come to UK to work at The Manor House Hotel in Castle Combe, near Bath, which has a Michelin star. Max encouraged Federico to join him and Federico arrived speaking no English to work in a busy kitchen. Three months of hell followed, he told me, but in the end he stayed for a year and a half before moving to London. His next stop was Zafferano to work with Giorgio Locatelli and thus began a relationship between the brothers and Locatelli that flourishes today. At Zafferano Federico learnt to make pasta and was promoted to sous chef. He was part of the team that opened Locanda Locatelli in 2002, involved in design, menus and recruiting staff.

Federico enjoyed five years at Locanda and became head chef before deciding to take a complete break. He went off travelling in South America for six months and completely cut himself off. This seems both brave and necessary for a man who had started working in tough kitchens at such a young age as Federico did. You lose touch with reality, he told me, working long days with little life outside of the kitchen. It’s like being in a tunnel. To travel was ‘necessary’ but he never lost the desire to cook. He came home and married and now he and he wife have Isabella. His wife works part-time and the couple share care of their daughter. Federico told me how his wife always waits up for him, no matter how late he is back from the restaurant. She and Isabella come along to the restaurant often and this is part of the family unity. Max lives above Tinello and has a son. This strong family connection is obvious as I sit talking and enjoy lunch. Isabella runs off to Max after a while and when at the end I ask to take a photo, Federico says I must take one of him with Max.

The brothers come  from a small town near Florence and thus their decision was not to open an Italian restaurant but a Tuscan restaurant. They wanted people to be able to escape the bustle of city life and go to Tuscany for a while. However, Max also wanted a good international wine list for their London clientele but the emphasis on Italian wine is strong. When I sat down he brought me a Soave Classico. Soave used to have a bad name in the UK but I’ve learnt to be discerning and love it and this one was delicious.

Federico told me about their care in sourcing produce for the kitchen: fish that comes straight from Cornwall; visits to Italy every two to three months and a friend there who sources food for them. We had a long discussion about truffles and how the Alba truffle market in Piedmont has been spoilt by viniculture bringing fungal infections to the land. Truffles need purity in all ways, Federico told me: the ground and the water. They source their truffles from Tuscany from a man who has his own land and looks after it in a pure way resulting in wonderful truffles.

As we talked, we ate. I left the ordering of food to Federico and he suggested we share some small eats first and then three pasta dishes. The menu offers Antipasti but also Small Eats for sharing. There’s a simplicity to the way the dishes are presented on the menu – none of that over-elaborate description you sometimes see – but there’s nothing simple about the wonderful ingredients. There are a few things that are always on the menu but new dishes are constantly introduced, reflecting the seasons and what becomes available at any time.

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When you arrive at Tinello bread and some pickled vegetables are brought to the table – vegetables they pickle themselves. They are made every couple of days so retain a lovely fresh bite. We then shared four small plates. Crostini con il ‘fuagra’ toscano is a traditional Tuscan chicken liver crostini. This is always available and Federico told me they were proud of this popular dish. It was very good. Alongside it was a dish of Fried Courgettes – courgettes cut into little ribbons and fried in the lightest of batters. These were superb and we just picked some up with our fingers to pop straight in our mouths.

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There was also some wonderful smoked and cured ham from Trentino – Speck della Val di Non. This was sublime: so light yet full of fabulous flavour and a wonderful aroma. Our fourth plate was Gnocco fritto e lardo di colonnata: deep fried bread dough and lardo. Federico told me the gnocco is bread dough frozen to lock the yeast and stop the rise; the frozen pieces are then dropped into hot oil to puff up into wonderful mouthfuls of wafer-light bread. The lardo is a revelation for anyone who thinks they don’t like ‘fat’. Taste this and you know you would be mad to ever cut the fat from a piece of ham when it could taste like this. A simple, white strip glistening with its oils cut very thinly. The taste is divine.

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Small plates have become fashionable but these are some of the best you’ll find and just how much fun is it to sit with friends or family and share extraordinarily wonderful food like this. It’s that ‘family’ thing again: letting formality go and embracing the art of shared experience. To follow the starters we had a risotto and two pasta dishes to share. Federico said we must eat the fish risotto first: Riso ‘Acquerello’ ai gamberi di Mazara del Vallo e piselli – Sicilian prawns and peas risotto.

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Oh my word! These were just the most exquisite prawns I have ever tasted. Yes they were perfectly cooked and gloriously tender but what made them so extraordinary was their sweetness. I was even more excited when Federico said these are the ones you can see Giorgio Locatelli sourcing in the TV programme, Sicily Unpacked. I’d re-watched that episode on DVD only last week and could picture them being caught and immediately frozen. The risotto was gorgeous: full of flavour, the right amount of creamy wetness and rice cooked to that exact al dente bite. The first of our pastas was a new dish on the menu that Max had pointed out to me: Tortelli di ricotta e spinaci, salsa alle noci – Home made ricotta and spinach pasta parcel, walnut sauce.

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I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to buy a packet of ricotta and spinach tortellini from the supermarket again! These little parcels of heaven took tortelli to a completely different level. This was the real Italian experience; this was being in Italy. Our final pasta was Paccheri, N’duja di Spilinga e burrata: tubular pasta, ‘N’duja’ and burrata cheese.

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N’duja is a spreadable, spicy Calabrian sausage.

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Burrata is a Puglian cheese – mozzarella on the outside and filled with a mozzarella and cream mix inside. Federico told me this was one of their trademark dishes and is always on the menu. The ‘spreadable’ sausage melts into the sauce and gives a wonderful chilli kick, which is then contrasted with the creamy cheese. It was great. It was such a pleasure and privilege to taste such wonderful Italian food and have the chef sitting with me to tell me all about what I was eating. The Single Gourmet Traveller was in a little Italian heaven for a couple of hours. And she wasn’t about to turn down a dessert even if it was lunchtime and she doesn’t usually ‘do’ desserts for lunch. What to choose? A meringue with lemon cream and apple? A fig tart with yoghurt ice cream? I opted for Tortino di polenta, gelato al mascarpone – Polenta cake, mascarpone ice cream.

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The cake was incredibly light. Federico explained it cooked a bit like a brownie – almost a ‘case’ on the outside but soft in the middle. The mascarpone ice cream was rich, creamy and utterly delicious. More treats came with coffee: little beignets filled with zabaione.

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Federico told me how he and Max would get these as treats when kids. What joy to bite into a light deep-fried choux paste and find a rich zabaione custard inside.

I had such a great time talking to Federico and Max and enjoying the most wonderful Italian food. I loved Tinello; I could immediately see myself sitting there with family or friends and delighting in some great food together. So I shall definitely be going back!
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