One can sum up the life philosophy of Giacomo Bulleri in one phrase: women and cooking – that’s is life. The Italian nonagenarian writes; “while women give us life, cooking allows us to live it.”
RECIPES (FOR LIFE) is a peppery memoir of an unashamed womaniser and liar, who successfully runs three restaurants: Ristorante Da Giacomo, Giacomo Bistrot, and Arengario inside the Museo del Novecento; a cafe, pastry shop (Pasticceria) and delicatessen (Tabaccheria) in Italy’s economic powerhouse, Milan. With a sarcastic and genuinely entertaining honesty right at the beginning of his book he rants: “Clearly, our roots have a bigger effect on us than we think or are prepared to admit. I hail from the same place as one of the biggest liars of all time. Unlike Pinocchio, though, I have never been a puppet.” His wit penetrates the entire book in an eloquent, Italian man-to-man conversation style. If all the women knew! The Italians know how to charm and how to keep it all going, and this book illustrates this for centuries trained seduction magnificently. “And besides, in school there were girls”, he shares his excessive infatuation with women, who are “much stronger than ants”, while at the same time humbly casts appreciation of his late wife: “Without Miranda I would never have made it”, and puzzlement: “Knowing them is one thing, understanding them another”. This admiration and occasional respect excuses him from the otherwise overt sexism.
I like his simplistic, yet poignant view on beauty: “it is everything where it should be”.
Giacomo Bulleri: life in the big city
Moving north from a small coastal town in Tuscany, Giacomo found his life’s passion very early in life. He loved women and cooking. He became a chef and continues seducing women even as almost a centenarian widower. He keeps savouring life with a zeal and permanently lit up cigarette in his mouth as he has always done. A proud Tuscan, Giacomo disseminated not only his genes but also the cuisine of his region at first in Turin and later in Milan, where today his restaurant business includes six distinct concepts so far.
His love of cooking is embodied in his concept of life and art: “No art can nourish body and soul at the same time. But cooking can.” First cooking in Turin as a teenage chef, he observed then “the most important meal was lunch as the restaurants would fill up in ten minutes”. Gone are these days! In RECIPES (FOR LIFE) he criticises the switch to going without lunch until dinner of today’s sedentary population. It is deceivingly healthy. Giacomo writes: “they think they eat light, but in reality they are hungry, fill up on bread and nibbles and drinks, and the next day they are more bloated than ever and get even more obsessive: I must eat light!”. His life story is not a prescription though for a healthy and long life, rather full of recipes for a happy, every day living on a full speed attitude. An open confession of one’s faults reveals the typical Italian character. He always nods and pretends to understand and share others’ thoughts, “however, I understand them, but don’t share them.” Indeed, the Italians always seem to be overtly self-assured that they give you what you want, because you do not know what you want. If the food is great, I do not need to raise any complaints.
A sharp, concise, yet punchy writing style makes for an impactful and highly entertaining read. His deceased wife Miranda was surely turning in her grave as he poured his mind into the lines of the book. At times, the account may seem too crude as when he confesses on having sex with a woman on an empty train while working as the ticket collector (the poor woman did not have money to pay for her ticket).
Giacomo’s pronounced masculine style is underlined in the English translation from the original Italian version. The English translation by Alastair McEwen is superb. The choice of fitting, but unconventional verbs in the described situations such as skewered, not for food, and razed, not for his moustache, further spice up his everyday adventures.
Wisdom of old age sparks through the short-cut chapters dedicated to humorous pondering about then and now. “The past seems always nicer. No contest, because certain wounds have almost healed. In the past there lies youth, which is no longer present today. Youth is worth far more than any success, because when you’re young you hold the future in your hand and with the future you can solve everything. Success can be repeated, but not youth.” Yet, “if success came along immediately we would feel fulfilled, we’d stop growing”. In spite of the tough life during and after the World War II, Giacomo is more positive about his twenties and thirties since he finds people today unhappy. Later in life, the womaniser had to fight the worst battles of all and pay for his indecency by being diagnosed with a prostate cancer. Far from defeat, he gained strength from the experience, confessing “I believe that the power of the mind can defeat any illness. One day we will realise and we will understand that the most powerful medicines are produced by the brain.” Nevertheless, his determination and stamina did not spare him from the surgeon’s knife. Living on the edges and kissing up the death seem to thrill him. “I have stared death in the face, but it didn’t see me.” Westerns were his vice as a movie fan, and like in them his stories feel dramatic.
Giacomo’s pessimistic view with an adage of the old age chimes in his words. “We know nothing about destiny, but it knows about us.” Shrewdly, he advises: “In life, it’s better to arrive late because you can master the situation.” At least towards women such disrespectful strategy seemed to work for him. Yet proactivity is crucial for our contentment; writing “Someone gives us the time, but we invent life”.
Unforgiving of failing humanity, he is generally pessimistic about our contemporary values: “I regret the passing of the culture of the land, because it taught the value and the price of things… so we no longer know what is really worth something and we’re prepared to pay crazy prices for things of no value. People who waste have no respect for anything or anybody.” His sustainable mindset stems from the countryside upbringing when his parents imprinted these, by poverty marked, values on him. As the “chef’s most important qualities” he lists rapidity right next to “creativity when dealing with leftovers”. The same values that Dan Barber, the us chef-activist, and the French celebrity Alain Ducasse share. He connects our detachment from nature with the modern fad diets: “Instead of teaching people not to eat, why we don’t don’t teach them how to eat properly. Immediately and well isn’t possible”. So eat a big lunch in a company of others as “stress has replaced tiredness” and our health suffers.
In a chapter dedicated to bread, the essential Tuscan staple made “without salt so that it could be accompanied by savoury dishes” he laments that “ingredients and baking have changed, but above all it’s is the mentality that’s changed. There was a time when bread was sacred. Wasting it was not only sin: it was a crime!” Making a proper Tuscan bread at his bakery for all of his restaurants became the author’s holy grail. Noting the unavoidable Milanese touch of its water and climate: “Every city has its bread, and you need to make the bread that comes out well in that city.” My frequent meals at da Giacomo fully support the perfect crunchiness of his bread crisps, while maintaining the white crumbliness of the Tuscan bread style.
Experienced chef’s advice to home cooks and restaurateurs
Home cooks will discover practical advice throughout the book, as well as some of Giacomo’s signature recipes. Learn how to make successfully Baccala alla livornese, Pappa al pomodoro, Ribollita, and Acquacotta, all Tuscan culinary highlights. He criticises eating alone as “feeding” not eating since we also “feel safer in company”. For those who like to cook, the chef professes: “The soul that brings a dish to life cannot be taught”, so you must naturally be able to “transmit it to the dish” in order for your cuisine not to be “soulless”.
A great chef, the “genius” in his words “interprets the recipe like no one else”, and in order to create great food “you have to mature your taste and refine it with experience”.
If you own a restaurant or would like to open one, you may appreciate this life-worth experience from the industry. Giacomo shares insider knowledge in the intermezzo of his intense lifestyle. He warns that, “negative word-of-mouth publicity is a real disaster: lose one client and he’ll take aways another ten.” He likes demanding clients whom he manages to please as “he knows what he wants and as he comes to you means that he has found what he was looking for”. The Italian accent on high quality produce is reinforced: “Shopping for provisions is seventy percent of a good restaurant. Quality cuisine is impossible without quality products. No one can improve perfection, so don’t take away the soul of ingredients. Protect, respect and value their true nature.” He also observes that; “Restaurateur’s profession has changed. Today, instead, rather than fill [diners] I ought to empty them.” People going to restaurants want “to leave behind the suffocating stress of the day, the tensions caused by work etc.”
On running the business successfully, he cautions: “Restaurants are like pots, you have to keep an eye on them, otherwise things don’t work. In this business, credit and belief in your name are everything”.
At the end comes Giacomo’s secret: “sow passion in order to reap passion. If you work without passion you toss half of your life straight down the tubes.” Therefore, by putting passion into his cooking he believes that the diner can feel it in the meal. After dining at all of his three restaurants, and enjoying all the bread and pastries, I must say I savoured the passion of his cooks and bakers with an Italian sense of buonissimo!
Giacomo’s restaurants in Milan:
Ristorante Da Giacomo
Tom Ford’s and the fashion industry heavyweights favourite restaurant. Elegantly designed, old Italy evoking trattoria with an ornate wall paneling designed by recognised Milanese architect Renzo Mongiardino. Before your meal, you always get a slice of pizza with a basket of the excellent breads from the bakery across the street. Coastal Tuscan cuisine with accent of fish and seafood. The professional service is extremely apologetic when something comes too cold and tries very hard to satisfy every customer.
A blend of a retro French bistrot atmosphere with English gentleman’s club nuances. Leather and antique styled books were incorporated by the duo of Italian architects Laura Sartori Rimini and Roberto Peregalli.
Via Pasquale Sottocorno 6
+39 02 7602 2653
The most contemporary designed and plated of the Giacomo restaurant family. Serving traditional Milanese dishes as well as contemporary plates such as ceviche. Art deco interior, open air terrace and splendid Piazza del Duomo views.
Via Guglielmo Marconi 1
+39 02 7209 3814
Palazzo Reale, Piazza del Duomo 12
+39 02 8909 6698
Via Pasquale Sottocorno 5
+39 02 7631 9147
Via Pasquale Sottocorno 5
+39 02 7600 9410