By Lauren Jade Hill
Positioned on the cliffs of Ravello on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, the former 11th-century palace of Belmond Hotel Caruso has a remarkably scenic setting amid cliff-side terraced gardens, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. These views can be taken in from the outdoor infinity pool, or from the hotel’s covered terrace, which is where diners spill out onto from the elegant Belvedere Restaurant. Having become known for its innovative take on traditional Italian cuisine and use of fresh, local ingredients, Belvedere Restaurant was named Restaurant of the Year in the European Hospitality Awards 2016. We speak to the Executive Chef, Mimmo di Raffaele, to find out what it is that makes a meal here so special.
How does your background reflect the dishes you create now?
I was born in Caserta, a city in the south of Italy, and raised among the abundant orchards, vineyards and olive groves in the area that the Romans named Campania felix, or ‘happy country’. No doubt, I have a deep attachment to my south Italian roots and my family traditions, which are now reflected in my kitchen style; I always try to bring back a little taste of the flavors of my childhood memories.
Does the menu at Belvedere Restaurant represent the region of Italy that it’s in?
All my dishes represent a different area of Italy, but especially the Campania region, which is where I’m from. I am now based in a territory – The Amalfi Coast – where the mountains blend into the sea, so I feel it’s important to have dishes that represent these ‘two souls’, too. Here, lamb can meet ingredients like prawns, anchovies and lemons. Guests of Belvedere Restaurant want to try the best of the regional cuisine, and our aim is to satisfy those wishes with local and authentic ingredients and delicious recipes.
Are all of the ingredients you use sourced locally and in season?
The majority of the food is grown in the area and we have our own herb garden at the hotel. I like to visit local markets and farms where I look for the best products, such as Sfusato Amalfitano lemons, Anchovy Colatura, Provolone del Monaco cheese, and Maialino Nero Casertano cured meat. For me, inspiration comes from everywhere though, from the hotel’s views to the Mediterranean gardens, as well as the flavors of the region. This inspires me to use the ingredients I love in a creative way. Even the hotel’s great history has encouraged me to stay loyal to our cooking traditions.
The Belvedere menu is designed to follow the seasons, with dishes like the starter ‘springtime in the garden’, which is a seasonal selection of spring vegetables and polenta. In autumn, the starter ‘autumn in the garden’ comes with a selection of autumn vegetables such pumpkin and Porcini mushrooms with chestnuts.
Do you have a signature dish?
My ambition is to surprise and challenge preconceptions. The reason I go to work every day is to come up with new ideas and improve. Among my signature dishes, ‘tu vuò fa l’americano’ has completely reinterpreted the hamburger, through my Mediterranean roots, replacing the beef with tuna from Cetara to make it the protagonist of the scene. Then there’s the ‘Sciuscio Napoletano’, which is a Mediterranean version of Japanese sushi. This dish is offered as a culinary journey through a variety of tastes from the Amalfi Coast. To me, a kitchen is like life; it is made of tastes and contrasts.
What is special about the restaurant’s location?
The Belvedere Restaurant has a beautiful terrace overlooking Mediterranean gardens and the Amalfi bay. It’s an oasis of peace and beauty where all you need to do is relax and let us spoil you. At lunch time, dining alfresco is the best way to enjoy lunch away from the hustle and bustle of the coastline, and at night the lights of the surrounding neighborhood add to the romance and glamour.
Are there any chefs you’ve been inspired by throughout your career?
It is not about a single person. For me, it’s about the many exciting influences I have been exposed to. In my early career, I worked in Cortina d’Ampezzo, and from there I moved to Switzerland for formal training in Lausanne. While studying, I worked at the restaurant of three Michelin-starred Swiss chef Frédy Girardet, which gave new structure and vision to my work. The second formative challenge was the grand opening of the Marino alla Scala restaurant in Milan with the designer Nicola Trussardi. During that period, I was lucky enough to meet the renowned chef Enrico Derflingher, who was once the personal chef to Her Majesty The Queen. I joined Enrico at the Eden Hotel restaurant in Rome where I become sous-chef. That’s an experience I will never forget.
What seasonal dishes can people expect to have if they visit in the coming spring?
To start a warm Pecorino cheese flan with asparagus, aromatic herbs and sun-dried cherry tomatoes, or roasted octopus, sweet bacon, potatoes and celery, flavored with citrus from the coast. Since you are in Italy, you cannot miss out on the pasta. Our Linguine pasta is flavored with a traditional Colatura of salted anchovies and lemons. As a main course, try the Pezzogna fish in a Mediterranean sauce of olives, capers, potatoes and cherry tomatoes, or pork ribs served with Annurca apple puree.