Da Noi is a new, independent restaurant on Bridge Street in Chester. We’ll get to the other essential information later. For now, I want to zoom in on my favourite part of this interview, what made me feel like I needed to make room in my diary as soon as possible to eat here. This is a snippet of what Head Chef Valentina said to me when I asked how the menu was put together:
‘It’s like a family cookbook; I learnt to make lasagne (La Lasagna) with my grandmother when I was four, helping with the pasta machine. Parmesan pudding (Il Budino di Parmigano) is our starter every family Christmas in Italy. Each summer, over here, we pick basil from our garden and make pesto from scratch (Le Trofiette al Pesto), and I cooked calamari with leek and potato sauce (I Calamari su Crema di Patate e Porri) the first Christmas I spent with (husband and co-owner) Fabrizio. The slow-cooked beef with tuna and capers (Il Vitello Tonnato) is more antique than my grand, grand, grandmother,’ she beams.
Lobster ravioli with asparagus
Valentina’s personal connection with every dish has resulted in a beautifully considered, authentic Italian experience for diners.
Fabrizio adds, ‘Everything on the menu tells you a story.’ He’s clearly delighted to listen to Valentina as she loses herself in the unbelievable contrast of honey with cheese and a glass of wine. He cites Val’s talent as the spark that ignited Da Noi – ‘Her talent was being wasted and I wanted to give her the room to shine. She’s a constant source of inspiration for me – all of my big decisions have been inspired by her – even the decision to move to England; she said, let’s just go!
The couple were living in Turin, in the North West of Italy, when Fabrizio received an offer from Bentley Motors (where he currently works in the management team). Three months later, with Valentina speaking no English, and only one another as a liferaft, they moved across Europe. Fabrizio smiles, ‘We moved because we could rely on our relationship. Also, we’re natural talkers – we make friends in the street. We love meeting people and getting to know them. Within two weeks in the UK we were regulars in a few places who would put our orders together as soon as we walked in. It was the same in Turin; getting kicked out because we got caught up chatting, having a great night.’
Valentina started off selling cakes in Nantwich market and was soon invited to food demonstrations. She then started working as a chef in local restaurants but never cooking Italian food. ‘Back in Italy, I started taking professional courses to build on my passion. I would stay up to 3 or 4 in the morning excitedly reading through recipes.’ Working in kitchens in the UK allowed her English and confidence to develop, and she became a tutor in a cookery school.
The couple were soon hunting for a small place in Chester, where Valentina could express herself and get back to the recipes she loved. ‘There’s a big difference in doing something because you have to, and when you want to, when it’s feeding your passion. This menu is food I’ve prepared all my life; I know it well and I’m confident in it.’
‘I had to be reigned in,’ Fabrizio tells me warmly, ‘had to realise this was for her, her dream, and that her vision was of somewhere small and intimate. It fitted the atmosphere she was after too: homely, elegant.’
Less than five months went by between the first visit to the premises and Da Noi opening on the 22nd of August. ‘Chester was our first love when we moved from Italy,’ he says, ‘I always wanted to spend a slice of my life in this country. We wanted to do something of impact here which links us to Italy. Chester is perfect; it means a lot to us that it’s a Roman city, being surrounded by ruins and reminders.’
After almost six years here, the affection is clear, ‘If we visit Italy for a few days, coming back one of us always says something like, glad we’re going home to England. Home is here. We prefer it,’ Val says, grinning at Fabrizio. When I ask if there’s much of a gap in culture, she tells me she finds English people more polite and respectful. ‘We’re more emphatic; apparently, we shout more!’ Fabrizio laughs, ‘Apparently!’
And how do they find working together? ‘This is the beauty,’ Fabrizio says, ‘Val is very assertive, we both are – both strong characters that can clash. But we recognise when to compromise, and we’re just passionate. We have different roles, bring different strengths to the table. I work in the background and support Val, by looking at the future and spreading our message – the magic of authentic Italian flavours. I want to be credible and earn the trust of customers. I want to give my ideas time to flourish properly and in due course. There’s plenty to do! We have a long way to go and a lot to learn but we’re excited. Val pulls me back down to earth when I get carried away.’
They both share the memory of an emotional, opening night, and the plan to put one new action into place every day to improve. ‘It can be tiny,’ Fabrizio says, ‘decoration of the tables, service, process, waste management etc. We can’t sit on our laurels.’
Valentina agrees, ‘I’m going to challenge myself with the menu too. It will shift seasonally, but there will always be specials and new things to explore and try. I also like the thought of putting on cookery classes and demonstrations in the future, maybe themed evenings.’
Sesame encrusted tuna fillet steak
‘We want to share with people how we eat, to share our culture and how we craft dishes. You have to be patient introducing people to the true Italy, but this is what we believe in,’ Fabrizio adds.
I’m evidently in the company of two people in the midst of a leap (albeit an energised, intelligent one); the sense they’re both thrilled to be sitting in their creation, in Da Noi, is palpable. ‘We felt it was time, ‘ Fabrizio says, ‘I think fate is what closes the loop between your dreams and them coming true. It gives you a light. You have that good feeling that it’s destined – the right place, the right moment. My dream is for people to want to discover and be open to what we have to share. We want to be accessible and affordable because this is for everyone. Da Noi means ‘at our place’ and this is an invitation. We welcome our customers with open arms.’
Reserve your table by calling +44 1244 317793 or booking here.