The Culinaire of Campania

18 Aug 2014
4 min read
Nino Di Costanzo has been described as an understated chef. When one visits his restaurant on the island of Ischia, accessed by boat from Naples, Italy, understated is not the correct word. Talented, yes. Brilliant, certainly. A master of creativity, most definitely. But understated, absolutely not, writes Rebecca Howe in FOUR’s International edition…

Nino Di Costanzo is a Relais & ChâteauxGrand Master Chef, with two-Michelin-starredIl Mosaico restaurant at Terme Manzi Hotel &Spa, a thermal resort originally built in the 19thcentury, in the beautiful village of Casamicciola.The hotel is enchanting, a jewel nestled on arough Ischian hillside. While soaking up the sunon the rooftop deck, it almost feels like you could be in the Amazonrainforest due to the location’s thick vegetation.

The hotel was built with love and passion by the Polito family whospared no expense in their search for perfection. Statues and tiles wereall handmade by local craftsmen. The Presidential Suite’s ceilings arecovered in gold leaf, furnished with unique antiques and artefacts andthe bathroom is all in onyx. Il Mosaico restaurant mirrors the hotel’sfairy-tale-like touches.

Nino is no stranger to this plentiful volcanic island. He obtainedhis chef diploma at the Ischia School for Culinary Arts and HotelManagement, coming full circle following stints in some of the mostrenowned hotels in Italy and abroad, including the Four Seasons LosAngeles (set of the film Pretty Woman); the Eden in Rome, and manyothers in Canada; the United States; Belgium; Great Britain; Spain andSwitzerland.

To eat well is a birth right in Italy. Families and communities oftengrow, cook and eat together, sharing in their recipes and produceand by this their principles of the Slow Food Movement. Great chefsemerge from all regions with an inheritance of the appreciation of goodfood and its source. This was no different for the young Nino. “My
memories relating to food go back to when I was a child. I grew up witha great fascination, affection and dedication to food.

“My cuisine reflects my childhood, my homeland and traditions.” Nino explains: “Italian values and Campania’s flavours are a continuing source of inspiration for my dishes, with the greatest respect for Italian raw materials. I may adjust cooking time or procedures, but the original flavour of main ingredients is never affected.

“My mother and grandmother have always had a great influenceon my cuisine. They transferred their culinary passion, love for food,devotion and hard work [to me] as values of my everyday life.”

Couple this inherent passion with Nino’s experience working withmany chefs at the top of their game and you can see how Nino’s hardtraining inspires the culinary creations at the hotel with his originaland unmistakable style. “I learned techniques and the art of cookingfrom great chefs,” he says. These include two of the great masters ofmodern cuisine; Italian hero Gualtiero Marchesi and Juan Mari Arzak ofArzak restaurant in the Basque Country.

Nino’s cuisine is simple and refined with flavour. Colour and substancemanifesting in a presentation of masterful dishes. “Aesthetic vision is anatural talent of mine,” says the chef. “I really love art and I often havea feeling that my hands move by themselves during culinary creation.”

Having spent eight years at Il Mosaico and many years previous tothat working under other chefs, I wonder, is there a peak, a culinaryepiphany that one reaches? “I think it is difficult to define a specificmoment [in time],” Nino says. “Gastronomy and food are an allabsorbingand never-ending passion.”

Nino’s creations are full of strong emotions, always relating back tothe raw ingredient: “I am inspired by love and passion every day whenI choose my ingredients. When I create my dishes I put myself in myguests’ shoes and I prepare my combinations and compositions inorder to highlight the products of our land.”

The hotel’s culinary offering is based on a long and careful search ofhigh quality ingredients. “I comb through hundreds of small producersboth in Italy and abroad, looking for and finding the same passionthat inspires my job. My careful selection allows me to have the bestproducts on the market.”

Only fresh ingredients find their way to restaurant Il Mosaico’s kitchen.The rest, bread and confectionery included, are homemade. “Theproducts of our land are excellent. Therefore their flavour, colour andsubstance must be respected during the cooking process, in order toconvey the right emotions. The secret is to find the right combinationsto highlight each ingredient and make it recognisable, even in the mostcomplex creations and by less educated palates,” Nino says.

Through the respect of raw ingredients and gourmet cookingtechniques, Nino is capable of creating playful and inventive dishes,putting his all into each and every plate. There is, of course, a lot ofCampania in each dish, too. “I usually use Campania’s ingredientsbecause I know they can make the difference. Spices, chocolate andrice are few exceptions. Extra virgin olive oil, however, tomato and allbuffalo milk produce are my favourite products to work with.”

Nino opened Il Mosaico in 2006 and had received two Michelin starswithin 18-months. With just eight tables, including three chef’s tables,the atmosphere is always intimate and unquestionably romantic. Thenumber of covers allows the team at Il Mosaico to go into great detail -from service through to menus.

In addition to the obligatory food menus, there’s a menu for water, oiland coffee. Dishes are masterful—the kind that appear too beautiful toeat. Each stunning dish is presented on copper, Murano glass and othercarefully selected plates. Bread is presented in an old treasure chest.Guests are given a choice of 20 oils from the menu to accompany theirbread with—each one representing a region in Italy, warmed by themaître d’s hand to bring out the infusion of flavours and smells.

An example of the refined details presented to guests at Il Mosaico isthe tea trolley. Guests are presented with the trolley, arriving with freshlygrowing herb, which, upon selection by the diner, are delicately cut andinfused inside an antique teapot.

Nino’s dishes are in contrast with his own humble and softly spoken persona. Two of Nino’s signature dishes; red prawns, with passion fruit and orange on vanilla and lime and the ‘coniglio all’acqua pazza’—a rabbit dish—is a reflection of his unique skill and dedication to his region. “In my view, chefs have a duty to produce a cuisine in tune with their traditions and origins. They should display what is best about their region and seek out the very best ingredients from their terroir and showcase them, while paying allegiance to the recipes, which they have grown up with, ones that bring back magnificent memories.”

Find out more about Chef Di Costanzo, andFOUR’s International Edition.