Chefs cook up a storm at new Belfast restaurant Gusto é
A couple whose authentic Italian food was so impressive they were employed as official culinary ambassadors for their native province are now bringing their traditional dishes to a Belfast audience.
Philly d'Uva is head chef in Belfast's new Italian restaurant, Gusto é.
And - turning the tables on the traditionally male restaurant industry - her partner Nicola Attianese is her number two.
Married more than 20 years, the couple have four daughters aged nine to 19.
Pure-blooded southern Italians, Philly and Nicola have been putting out traditional dishes in all their time as cooks. And she describes herself and Nicola as cooks rather than chefs.
"I learned to cook from my grandmother and mother," she says.
"We didn't go to catering college and most Italians understand the importance of continuity and the sense of stability traditional dishes bring to your life."
Such is her standing in Italy as a defender of the old ways, Philly and Nicola have been hired to perform all over the world as culinary ambassadors for their homeland.
Any Italian diplomatic effort in Moscow, Washington DC or most European capitals will have been sustained and nourished by Philly and Nicola.
"Few things in life are quite so important or such frequent and daily features of our existence so central to our way of life, than eating," she says.
"Breakfast, lunch and dinner are life-affirming and uplifting.
"The day you stop noticing what you're eating and drinking is the day you've lost interest in everything else!"
The couple first met in the late 1990s when they were both working as graphic designers in their home town of Salerno.
They soon married and by the time they had the second of their four daughters, Philly decided to stand down from work for a while to spend more time with the children.
But the desire to do stuff other than be a mum saw her inviting friends to dinner parties which became ever more elaborate.
Soon, she was being invited to cook for friends and relatives.
Her attention to detail and commitment to replicating and continuing the ancient southern Italian culinary traditions struck a chord amid the increasingly global approach to food and the erosion of authentic Italian food and cooking.
"I loved to cook dishes which had become old fashioned and had been replaced by convenience meals," she says.
"Dishes such as minestra meritata and zuppa forte were popular when our mothers and grandmothers were in the kitchen, but these were vanishing rapidly from the repertoire.
"Also, I started making some of these old dishes which were heavy and fat, lighter and healthier."
Soon, a major international catering company headhunted Philly and Nicola and for the next few years the couple were dispatched to the four corners of the planet to prepare top-dollar corporate dinners.
"We travelled extensively as a pair of Italian cooks preparing 100% authentic Italian food.
"The corporates were great to work for, because they knew the difference!"
After some years of globe-trotting for the private sector, the Chamber of Commerce of Salerno recruited them as the official chefs of the region.
This was an ambassadorial role promoting regional produce, in much the same way as world-beating Good Food NI and countless other agencies in Europe now do.
"The chamber had spotted that tourists consider food as their second immediate priority after accommodation when choosing a holiday.
"Our job was to evangelise by cooking our regional dishes everywhere to promote the area."
"Our food is as important as music and art in defining who we are. The same applies to Irish cooking, French, Spanish and just about every community.
"In the same way as you would never put pineapple chunks in an Irish Stew, or smoked salmon in a boeuf bourguignon I would never put parmesan in a seafood linguine," she laughs.
When it's suggested that adaptation makes commercial sense and by making dishes more popular - chicken masala is by all accounts a British invention and unknown in south Asia - you actually help great integration and understanding, she quickly dismisses this as a cop-out.
"I get really angry when I see things like garlic bread and chicken parmegiano touted as authentic Italian food.
"It's not right and it belies who we are."
The couple have been cooking in Gusto é since December last year.
Michelin-starred chef Paolo Barrale had contacted Philly and Nicola last year to urge them to take up an offer from the owners of the new Belfast venture.
"Working in Belfast is exciting and rewarding.
"People are kind and even when I tell them they cannot have parmesan with their fish, they understand, the point and the reason why."
For Philly and Nicola the desire to be in a country which is about to exit Europe appears eccentric.
Yet they are preparing for their four daughters to join them in September in time for the new term.
"There is opportunity here, particularly in the restaurant business," they say.
"There are still many more opportunities here than in Italy where taxes, water charges, unemployment are all a big deterrent for investment," she says.
Let's hope they stay a while.