The Big Mamma Group run eccentrically themed Italian restaurants that probably would never work in Italy.
They ramp up the novelty value with waiters that shout loudly in Italian as they cross the restaurant floor, kitsch decor like fussy lamps and old-fashioned tablecloths, as well as walls lined with bottles of classic aperitivo.
In a word, it’s fun – a trend Vice picked up on recently in relation to Big Mamma Group’s two London restaurants: Gloria in Shoreditch, which opened a year ago, and the newer Circolo Popolare in Fitzrovia. (Originally a French business, there are a further six outposts in Paris and one more in Lille.)
Circolo Popolare has just launched its new winter menu – the first refresh since the restaurant’s initial opening in the summer.
Here, Salvatore Moscato, who oversees the food in the British restaurants, talks about how he balances authenticity with novelty value to create the buzzing ambiance and Instagramable eats.
Before I arrived at Big Mamma in London to launch Gloria, I spent three years in Paris. I’m just finishing the first year here in London. There’s a lot of difference between the two countries: the customers change as much as the kind of dishes we propose. In London, the marketing and competition is harder. You have a lot of good restaurants, more than in Paris, so it’s harder than Paris to be competitive. Despite the differences between the UK and France, our processes are very similar. We aren’t changing the mentality of how we work.
In London, we have worked a lot on the concept of the carbonara. The carbonara is historical for the Italian people, but we have adapted the dish, because people visit us for our experimental interpretations. Here, we use pecorino. We put the carbonara inside the wheel of cheese, so the carbonara takes the very particular taste. We mix the carbonara in the cheese really close to the customer at the table, which is a nice experience. We work really hard on these unusual experiences.
At Gloria, we have worked a lot on the lasagne. We have made a 10-level lasagne. Normally, if I tell you about lasagne, you imagine a few levels. But here, we have a very big lasagne, made with cinta senese [a special breed of pig from Tuscany]. You have the impression that it is a very big piece of lasagne, like a mountain with ragu. This is completely different and something we’ve done for this country.
We use ‘pop’ ingredients to give us the ‘something more’ you expect from Big Mamma. We have to find the little ingredients that completely change the dishes. And I think we’ve achieved that with the lasagne and scotch egg, for instance. It’s not simple as it’s something that is very English, but we have done the scotch egg our way, with ragu cinta senese and salsa aioli, a particular Italian sauce with garlic, so the mix of the taste is very powerful.
We have a standardised process for food development and the proposition of new dishes. We have meetings with the owner, restaurant director and executive chef. We decide which dishes aren’t working when we change the menu every 45 days, select the dishes which aren’t good and work out what to change. We have a lot of ideas, then after the meeting, it’s my job as the head chef to present a dish that represents the ideas. This whole process takes three weeks, or up to one month. We’re working on the new menu as soon as we’ve changed the menu.
It’s a family moment when we change the menu. I don’t cook a lot with the guys every day, but my sous chef spends a lot of time in the kitchen. The moment of changing the menu is when I can spend all my time just with the guys to cook. So we all taste dishes, and we all discuss what we think. It’s also the opportunity for the people in the kitchen to show off a new technique. We try to work as a group, as I’m not the type of chef to make decisions alone: Big Mamma is a family.
The menu changes depending on the season. We work with fruit and vegetables that come from Italy. We only work with Italian products.
Our dishes are restyling Italian classics, but they aren’t fusion dishes. I showed the lasagne to my grandmother, and she said, ‘This is not a lasagne,’ but when she tasted it it was typical. It’s done with the recipe of my grandmother – when you taste the ragu you can tell.
We have a chef that works on the sourcing and development of dishes. They do tests, speak with me and work on new dishes. They are very technical and great chefs. The role changes between the chef, sous chef and junior sous chef. But if other chefs ask to show me things, I’ll never say no. If the guys have an idea, I’m happy to try.
On the next menu, we have the frittatina, a typical dish from Naples. It’s one of the first street food staples from Naples, served typically in the outside areas in front of restaurants. It’s done with bechamel, ragu cinta senese, chickpeas, parmesan, pecorino and pastella [batter], then fried and served with a smoked, creamy fondue cheese. Normally, you don’t eat it with a sauce, so we’ve also made something more precise.
There isn’t a big vegan or vegetarian culture in the south of Italy, but we’ve got plenty of vegan options on the menu. In the south, there has been more veganism in the last five years, but you can’t judge the slowness because it’s just the culture. Here, we work a lot with legumes. We use beans, chickpeas, potato; we do a lot of vegetarian dishes but without knowing. But we are improving our skills because it’s the future, it’s healthy. A lot of people are afraid to eat meat and fish because of environmental reasons, so it’s important to develop vegan and vegetarian dishes. That said, it’s important to have meat and fish dishes, because we are sure about our products and we know what we’re buying.
We are working towards having 50% of dishes being vegan and vegetarian. We pay a lot of attention to waste, glass, plastic: we respect the ambiance and that makes us feel better as employers because we’re working for people that have brains. Even in the starters, there are six dishes which could be vegan or vegetarian. Not bad for an Italian restaurant. Even the carbonara could be vegetarian – it’s something the Italians can’t accept, but we will make the dish without the meat, it’s not a problem.
My Italian family think it’s amazing here. For Italian people, family is really the first thing: we are very close with family. It’s true but also not true that you have to get pizza in Naples. Whenever my mother eats a pizza in Big Mamma, she says it’s better than 90% of the pizzas in Naples. I’m very proud of the pizza here, it’s at a very good level. My mother’s the most important customer of my life, so it’s normal to make sure everything is perfect. When dishes go out of the kitchen, I always ask, ‘Is this something you’d give to your mother?’ If not, it doesn’t leave the kitchen.
The design is amazing. The first thing the chefs say is, ‘Wow, I get to work in this place? Amazing.’ When you have beauty around you, you are positive. But not just aesthetic beauty: also, beauty that every dish is precise, everything is in harmony, and in this restaurant I think there is a lot of harmony. The harmony is what I call beauty. My chefs are more motivated because of this.
On the new menu we’re doing a pizza with katsuobushi [dried, fermented and smoked tuna]. It’s something very crazy. Never have a pizza with pineapple – but a pizza with katsuobushi is possible. On the last menu we had the British scotch egg, made with Italian ingredients. There’s no British dish on the winter menu, but our katsuobushi pizza is what’s unusual this time.
For our restaurant, it’s not good to say ‘authentic.’ But it’s a restaurant with an Italian kitchen, to give the customers the best moment of their day, or the week. To be honest, it’s a trattoria, but not the classic tratorria that just do the classic six dishes. We have a better level of attention that we give to the dishes. You could say that it’s authentic because we use authentic products, authentic recipes. It’s Big Mamma style. Over the last three or four years, we have created a style.
To do Italian food well in England, work with tradition but think to the future. Because London is always moving. Then try to be competitive, change your menu, but do something interesting, something cool, something that could be in the mind for some days after the experience. It’s also essential to ‘run,’ which means work a lot. Particularly on the quality, as it’s very difficult to be fast and have good quality... There’s a lot of people that want to eat fast.