Chef Paulo Risiglione came to what was an empty Moscow restaurant scene in 1988 to open the city's first Italian restaurant, Harlequino. Even though the city has grown colder and "less friendly," in his words, he has stayed on and made a career for himself in Russia's culinary capital. He returned to Russia from a brief hiatus in Italy to work for what he says is one of the city's five only "real Italian" restaurants: Spago. As a Sicilian native, he likes his food a little spicy and he believes that pasta is king.
Give us a little background about Italian cooking. How is it divided up by region?
Every region from north to south has its own cuisine. You can't say that there is such a thing as Italian cooking; we have regional cooking. Every region has its own style. There is a great difference between the north and the south. In the south, they like vegetables. Where I'm from, Sicily, we like it a little spicier, with lots of olive oil. In the north they like to use a little cream. But it's all tasty.
What exactly is the food like where you're from?
It's Mediterranean. It has a different smell. The spices are hotter, there are lots of tomatoes and plenty of seafood. I like the southern food for its spiciness.
In your opinion, should an Italian restaurant be a casual, homey sort of place, or more of a fancy-dress affair?
We have what I suppose you could call a home-style restaurant here. We have real Italian food in a slightly home-style restaurant. This is sort of an upper-middle class restaurant in terms of service and food, but the prices are moderate.
Is it best to offer Italian food as part of a menu in another restaurant, or serve it in an Italian-only atmosphere?
It needs to be served in a purely Italian environment. It's our food. If a Russian wants to eat Italian food, he'll go to an Italian restaurant, nowhere else.
What's the first thing a person should look for when they enter an Italian restaurant? How will they know it's going to be a good experience?
Pasta. Pasta is our national dish. Any country can prepare meat and fish, but pasta is something that belongs to us. But the pasta needs to be prepared with the right sauce. The sauce is essential. The next thing to look for on the menu is the quality of the fish. The fish needs to be fresh. We always have fresh fish here and a large assortment, too. They should also be able to order whatever they want. If something on the menu isn't what the guest is looking for, or if they just want to be different, then we can make something else, or recommend something they might like. That's Italian style. The waiters, chefs and managers need to ask guests what they want. If the guest doesn't like what's on the menu, you have to be able to make it in the way they wish, and make suggestions.
What constitutes good pasta?
It's cultural. It must be made by hand and include flour, eggs, and oil. Then you have to make the form: raviolis, fusilli, spaghetti, lasagne, spinach pasta, black pasta, there's all kinds. Next you have to add the sauce. For instance you need bolognese for lasagne, or you might like tortellini with mushrooms. Or you might have some sort of sauce with rabbit to go with your ravioli, or maybe a fish base, or more tomato sauces. That's pasta!
You mentioned rabbit. What does it taste like and what dishes does it go best with?
First of all, it's a white meat. It needs to be prepared with special spices, a little white wine and some sort of sweet and sour flavor. It also goes well with fruits like raisins, plums or apples. You can also make it with tomato sauce. Cream sauces are okay, but you need to do it just right. I prefer rabbit with tomatoes and fruits. You can also make duck ragout with tortellini, it's very tasty. I like gamey meats. We have them on the menu here, but finding boar and pheasant is difficult. I've stopped serving them temporarily, because the clients aren't used to them.
So clients don't like exotic dishes?
No, the meats aren't exotic. If you want exotic you go to an Indian or African restaurant. There's nothing exotic on our menu.
We'd like to ask you a few questions about choosing a wine. What's the best way to choose a wine for your dinner?
Well, we usually like to serve red wine, but you can use a little white. Red has more body, white is just too light. We prefer to serve red in this kind of glass [a wide-brimmed wine glass]. That way you can swirl it around and look for the colors. You can also look for the arms around the glass. That's the only way to look for a good wine. If nothing hangs on the edge of the glass, then it's just black water. Our manager is an expert in wine. He can suggest what wine goes best with whatever meat or fish the clients chooses. But most of our guests know what kind of wine they want already. We have about 60 kinds of red wine and 30 kinds of white wine - most are Italian, but we have French wine too.
Do you have a favorite wine?
Corpo Bladino, a white wine. Cangrelli is my favorite red. The closer you get to the south, the more aromatic and fruity the wines become. In the north, they tend to be a bit lighter. Columbo Blanco is a good white. A good red from Sicily is Cangrelli, also Miliona Milotta. The most famous Italian is Angelo Gaio. There's also a good Tuscan wine that Muscovites like, but is a bit of a secret in Italy: Sesicia, but it's very expensive. Of course, it's always a question that people are going to argue over. For the first time we're trying to sell South African wine. The public is very cautious about which wines they drink. For example, Californian wine didn't succeed here.
Is grappa an essential part of a meal?
Well, in the North you always drink it after a meal as a digestive. We have twelve different kinds here. But I don't consider it to be essential. I don't drink it very often myself.