Published originally on Cook_Inc. magazine
Children’s laugh, a rainbow, a puppy in the sun. Nothing is more pleasant than the feeling we get when we know we’re right. Luigi Lepore was born and raised in Lamezia Terme in the Calabria region, the city where also my wife was born and raised, and in which we live now. After finishing theory and practice studies of culinary science in Italian universities, Lepore started to travel Europe, gaining years of experience in kitchens around Italy, Spain, and France alongside Michelin-starred chefs. After more than a decade of traveling, Lepore decided to return to his hometown and weave the dots and lines of his personal history into a whole creation that celebrates his native region. It’s important to understand, that opening an elite restaurant in Calabria doesn’t come easily.
The region stands at the lower part of the socio-economic table of Italy’s regions, which means much less flow of money that can return the investment in a restaurant that is inherently more expensive. And it’s still the end of 2018 and the start of 2019 we’re talking about, even before the hospitality world got into the storm it’s still in.
It doesn’t mean that there are no good restaurants in Calabria, gourmet restaurants, or Michelin-starred restaurants. Of course, there are. But almost all the rest of them are guided by second and even third generation for hospitallers, like Abbruzzino, or operate as a part of a greater system of a hotel, like Hyle. In both cases, these restaurants enjoy a backup: either of generations of knowledge, reputation, and clients, or a direct one, as a part of the hotel eco(nomic)system.
This is not the case for Lepore that doesn’t come from a restaurateur family and has built the restaurant under his name in the center of Lamezia Terme, attached to the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, above the leather goods shop, not far from the watch-fixing one.
You can spot Lepore’s courage even on the restaurant’s website, which starts with the English version instead of the Italian one, a bold choice for a new restaurant at Italy’s deep South. But this little fact lights up the way Lepore wants to go, and the wise choice of his sister Stefania, who runs the dream’s media and marketing section.
The dining hall keeps signaling that this is not the usual Calabrian experience and that Lepore doesn’t constrain himself to the traditional way of cooking. The walls are grey, the furniture is wooden bright. We’ve seen such restaurants, we’ve dined in such restaurants, even in Calabria, but not in Lamezia Terme, not so close to home.
As we celebrated liberation from (another) quarantine, we chose the “Free Hand” menu (“A Mano Libera”): 7 courses alongside Lepore from the kitchen to the table, served by a very professional staff, headed by Stefania, who also runs the floor.
We started with some welcome nibbles:
Lightly-fried “bread” with one, maybe two, anchovy chops, a drop of Mozzarella di Bufala, and a flock of lemon zest – one bite that brings together the salty anchovy, the fatty Mozzarella, and the light lemon, and proves that you don’t need any more;
Two mushroom-shaped crackers with mushroom and hazelnut emulsion, sprinkled with thyme – a full dish tasted as forest ground;
Two discs of hydrated pork skin holding green olives cream, wild fennel, and sweet peperoncino – we wanted to fully focus on the flavors that pulled us in different directions, but the stubborn texture of the pork didn’t let us, so we would be very happy to try again these two bites;
Lestopitta, the ancient fried-non-leavened bread that its name (“flatbread”, in Greek) suggests that it came here with the Greek conquerors to the southern part of the region, with sheep tartare and local Pecorino flakes.
Already, in these four nibbles that don’t even count as a part of the tasting menu, there are two that show the philosophy of “flavor circles” that Lepore wants to lead the patrons. The forest is mushroom-shaped, the sheep tartare with sheep milk Pecorino. Everything is well constructed, and it’s enough to know just a fraction of the region’s history or ingredients to reveal another dimension of the experience.
Continuing (beginning, actually) with “tomato salad”: peeled tomato garnished with parsley, washed in cucumber and olive consommé. I thought it was a flavorsome fresh dish, but my wife opened her eyes widely, and explained that “this is EXACTLY the flavor of vegetable salad my sister and I used to have when we came back from the beach! That’s the flavor of the first thing you prepare when you return from a day in the sun and want to freshen up! That’s how summer tastes! Pure emotion.”
Lepore stands still and continues with a dish of cod, one of Calabria’s most known fish, with its tripe, peas, mushrooms, and oranges. This time it was my turn to re-live a memory. Apart from the fish that was white and tender, the peas popped softly and reminded me of the wonderful peas grown by cousin Vincenzino, that come to our house at the beginning of spring. Even I, that wasn’t raised in Calabria and knew nothing about the region, managed to recall memory to the delicate supporting voices of mushroom and orange.
We scooped what’s left on the plate (not much) with one piece of focaccia – not more. As moderate as it should be.
Overcoming the severe bump in the road for local money, Calabrian restaurants still stand in front of an obstacle of tourists. The region is surrounded by the regions of Campania, Sicily, and Puglia, all known – naturally or following massive investments in promotion – in their culinary peaks. Some random examples: Pizza? Campania. Cannoli? Sicily. Orecchiette? Puglia.
What is the famous dish that comes from Calabria? I’m pretty sure that there are very few non-Italians that can answer that, and only a handful of Italians can answer that. It’s easier to remember the names of dishes. This pasta, this pizza, that region’s pastry. Calabria has all the options of Mediterranean cuisine, but its geography doesn’t make it easy to pass from one side to the other. So instead of a cuisine of dishes, the Calabrian cuisine is one of separate ingredients and flavors. To know it well, one needs to know well the region’s different parts.
Think of the duck with burnt carrot cream, orange coulis, and eucalyptus oil and powder. The duck is rendered very well while its meat is red and juicy, but the innovation is pairing the smoked and sweet carrot with the bitter oranges and eucalyptus – and all together. The plating guides us on how to collect the one with the others to create a balanced byte that shows the desired combination of flavors.
A better example is the risotto that creates another “circle of flavor” joining juniper butter, bay leaves, licorice powder – and a drop of Gin. It’s a high-profile dish that incorporates defined-flavor ingredients, the ones that divide humanity to “love” and “despise”. In its base, it’s bitter, obviously, but the butter softens the attack on tastebuds, and the licorice that comes from Rossano, another pride of the region, sweetens it. It’s not a dish to the faint-hearted, and maybe some more refinement would make more people like it, but Lepore manages to control it very well.
There’s not such a thing as an Italian meal without pasta, and this place is filled with “A Memory of Struncatura”. Struncatura is one of the Calabrian pasta types, and back in the days it was based on flour with bran, to create strong and dark pasta that held well its condiment, usually tomato sauce, anchovy, and bread crumbs, that is also “A memory of Bread”.
Here it’s, in fact, only a memory of the hard pasta, since the three Tortelli were thin, and the other ingredients switched places: the tomatoes became a velvety confit, the anchovy entered the ravioli with Colatura, concentrated anchovy oil, below there was a light parsley and lemon cream, and the bread crumbs floated on top. For the ones who know, Struncatura is “A Memory of Struncatura”, and for whoever learned it from this plate, it’s a delicate-textured and heavy-flavored dish that stays in your memory from now on.
Before the “main dish” arrived (there are no main dishes in such menus), we found a little bit more of Lepore’s skill with the other bread of the evening. Again, only two slices – and some Grissini, but a mind-blowing, to say the least, smoked butter, thanks to a smooth and mousy texture, meeting a heavily-smoked flavor. As the dishes kept coming, we didn’t fully understand what it was – but we wanted more and more.
And here is the “main dish”: lamb chops, chicory cream, a big drop of sweet garlic, and “strawberry tree” coulis. Once again, I see my wife’s eyes fading into nostalgia, while she tells me about the tree that stood at the family’s restaurant’s garden, and the sweet-sour flavor of fruit she used to pick as a child. It’s a very personal memory, but also a Calabrian memory since the tree grows all around the region, so you can find such memories everywhere. The small “circles of flavor” chained nicely the lamb with the bitterness of chicory and sweetness of garlic and fruit, and came at the right time before the sweet part of dinner.
A long thread of tricks that surrounded the sweet axis came by, and in each one, we found something that didn’t appear in the others.
Cherry sorbet with pickled Sambuc flowers was the first dessert and acted more as a freshener after the serious lamb;
Still in the “cool” area, we were served black olive ice cream and a baked disc of the same olives, Pastazzo (a traditional orange made from the fruit residue after pressing it), and orange with olive oil emulsion, garnished with cocoa shreds and wild fennel leaves. The olive ice cream, as you might guess, was a great invention, and if only the strong orange had been a little lighter, the surprise would have been perfect;
If it’s still not clear, Calabria is a traditional region, so the flavors of its dishes are strong and simple. Lepore knows that with such flavors he couldn’t break through, so he uses them to create a sophisticated menu, and the next dish clarifies it.
Sweet and bitter almonds ice cream, lemon granita, and licorice sorbet gather all the known flavors of the region – and flip them over. We celebrated at the beginning of Summer, which for us arrives only after having the first Muzzunata, thick almond granita which represents Lamezia Terme, and for sure stood in front of Lepore when he created the dish. Together with it appeared again the licorice, tough and present, and here the lemon granita acted well as a balance to the other flavors – without taking over. An awesome dish.
As the dinner started, so it ended, in an elegant fade-out: A tiny bergamot tartelette, the orange that comes from the south-western part of the region; and a chocolate trio: white with olive oil, milky with lemon and hazelnuts, and bittersweet with passionfruit and peperoncino, reminding us that we are in Calabria. And that’s it.
The recent Michelin guide proved that hard work pays off, and only after two years and a half since its opening, a period that forced Lepore to confront a traumatic situation in the gastronomy world, it awarded him one star as a recommendation of a place “worth a stop”.
But you don’t come to Lamezia Terme just like that. It doesn’t have a big museum like MAaRC, the archaeological museum of Reggio Calabria, it doesn’t reside right on the seashore as Tropea, that this year won the title for “The most beautiful town in Italy”, and there aren’t many vineyards around it as around Cirò (a recommendation we took from this dinner – the great ‘aVita vineyard). Tourists don’t visit it on purpose and come here only by chance, so Lepore’s responsibility is even higher, more than the personal recognition of the star. With this one star he needs to act as having two, which means “worth a detour”, or even three, therefore “worth a special journey.”
Luigi Lepore Ristorante is much more than a restaurant. He turns the traditional Calabrian cuisine into a contemporary one and adjusts it to contemporary diners. Whether they come here by chance or on purpose, the dining atmosphere is sophisticated and vibrant. And if they’re Calabrian and know the stories behind the dishes, if it ignites a spark of childhood memory – then it becomes a thrilling experience. I guess that Michelin inspectors identified this spark as well, and handed Lepore the star for him to continue creating what he does best.
It’s worth coming to Calabria, it’s worth coming to Lamezia Terme, and it’s worth eating at Luigi Lepore Ristorante. And if you’re here – say “Hi.”