I attended culinary school for five years in Tornia (also known as Turin), the capital city of Piedmont in northern Italy that is well known for its refined architecture and cuisine. So after brief stops in France, Spain and Switzerland to obtain experience and broaden my culinary tastes (travelling and working gives you experiences not available in a classroom), I moved to Washington, D.C. at 19 to work in the legendary Italian restaurant Galileo on DuPont Circle with Chef Roberto Donna where I served politicos, celebrities, Beltway power brokers and foodies.
Truthfully, when I attended elementary school the food was terrible. I always came home hungry, so I began to cook for myself and ate my own meals at home after school.
In the 90s, I was a sous-chef at Il Laboratorio del Galileo, a glass-walled “showcase” kitchen lab within the Galileo restaurant in Washington, D.C., serving a different 10-12-course menu in a small dining room with only seven tables, five nights a week. The meal depended entirely on what the local farm markets had to offer that morning and what Chef Roberto Donna imagined as he strolled through the stalls. The owner of the Marco Ocean Beach Resort invited me to relocate to Marco Island and open Sale e Pepe in a replicated, palace-proportioned, Italian-villa setting with an outdoor terrace serving authentic Italian cuisine.
Europe has a lot of culinary history, so the teachers are very strict and expect a great deal from you. I was 14 years old when I won best student out of more than 700 students at my Tornia culinary school and was sent to Valencia to represent Italy while competing against 25-year-olds from culinary schools across Europe. I cooked a first course, a main course and a dessert. In addition, I made the same meal for the journalists and food writers from prestigious international publications. They liked my cooking, and it made me feel like a superstar. It made me realize that’s what I wanted to do.
At that young age, you don’t have any ego. It’s almost a game — you just do what you do because you love it. My youth opened many doors for me. In my business, you need to be able to work with Michelin chefs and bring a nice background. The chefs will then invite you into their kitchens and teach you. They opened their doors and let me work with them because you worked for free, not like in the United States.
Chef Robert Donna is from my hometown and attended the same culinary school in Tornia. He taught me how the culinary system works in the United States — it’s much different than in Italy because you don’t find all the same ingredients, so you must adapt but keep the tradition of the recipe intact. Those first couple of months were crazy because I didn’t speak any English and I worked with American, Spanish and Italian chefs.
Earning those awards took a lot of patience and hard work — training and ensuring people understand your passion and the direction you want to take. Italy’s climate and cuisine is so different from north and south. I have spent all my life doing my job and doing it right according to the real Italian culture where meals are prepared using grandmother’s recipes based upon what is available. I had to modify recipes to what I can find in the United States, but I still teach the Italian tradition. For example, risotto takes 20 minutes to prepare. So if you are served risotto within five minutes, send it back because it’s not prepared the right way like what we do in Italy.
I wanted to do something for me after 11 years at Sale e Pepe, so I created Alberto’s house. I wanted to prove to myself that I could create a very good restaurant that will last a long time. It’s my place where I can build stability, build my future and be in charge of myself. Owning my restaurant also allows me to judge my own time so that I can schedule time with my family and travel.
I am proud of all my dishes on the menu because they are all done to perfection in my eyes. We take a lot of pride in our restaurant. Everything is homemade and fresh from our crusty bread to the pasta, soup, sausage and traditional Piedmont cake. No machines, no television and no deep fryer. It’s like dining at home in Italy when grandmother made Sunday dinner.
It’s very difficult to find qualified help in Naples and keep consistency at one hundred percent. When I retire from my restaurant, I want to open a school to provide people with good training.
All the chefs that I worked with throughout my career. When you work with great chefs, it’s like a puzzle. You take what you need or what you consider to be the best of each person, and it all comes together. There’s always something new to learn. … From the chef or a dishwasher, I am constantly learning.
A James Beard (Institute) House dinner in New York at Christmas. You must be invited to this prestigious event. I didn’t want to ship the ingredients by plane, so we rented a truck and drove three days to get there. I served six different canapés at the reception and six courses for the sit-down dinner, including a pasta course. The main dish was lamb. For dessert, a chocolate mousse with raspberry sorbet and tiramisu served in a champagne flute.
My favorite resource is my taste memory — the way I cook is by taste and by memory. I don’t have a recipe book. I just keep adjusting until I remember the flavor I remember. My dishes are cooked in the same traditional way that they were prepared 100 years ago. It’s the presentation that’s different and helps modernize something that is very traditional.