Fabrizio Mellino brings back the three stars to the south, where they were missing since 2001. "I grew up with this desire: I didn't work just for myself, but to shine a light on the territory, and that made the difference."
Fabrizio Mellino hasn't stopped for a moment: after the celebration for Quattro Passi in Nerano's three-star status, he's already off to Doha, where he will conduct a series of joint dinners, then there are consultations in Switzerland and Positano. At thirty-two years old, with contagious enthusiasm, he embodies a generation of southern talents revolutionizing Italian cuisine.
The three Michelin stars are also a prize for a virtuous generational transition. However, you didn't inherit your role; you earned on the field.
I attended a language high school, but one day my father Antonio encouraged me to join the kitchen. He often interacted with people in the industry who urged him to pass the torch, involving his children. At first, it was challenging for me; I was drawn to the kitchen for the opportunity to express myself creatively, but it seemed limiting, and I doubted it could represent my future. Then, one day, Nadia Santini passed by; they had organized a party in Franciacorta for Paul Bocuse, and as a gesture of recognition, he offered a scholarship at his Institute in Lyon. I was offered the opportunity, and on June 2nd, I left with my father.
There, I quickly realized how advanced the French were, and there I decided it was my path. I then had experiences with Alain Ducasse and Quique Dacosta, plus a brief stint in Japan. From these masters, I encountered profoundly different interpretations of the Mediterranean: at Louis XV, the influence of Turkey and the Arabs was evident, while in Denia, there was a more Asian touch, with Korean, Japanese, and even Greek techniques.
A different training than your father's
He had worked on cruise ships from a young age. He enjoyed the profession, so he gradually formulated a plan to save enough to open a restaurant. But he was self-taught.
When did you return to Quattro Passi?
Even during high school, I helped out in the summers, especially in the dining room, where American customers were intrigued by the presence of a young boy. From my travelling, I returned in 2012. I felt that my dad was proud of my journey, but in the kitchen, everyone has their interpretation, so I couldn't change everything overnight. I moved discreetly, trying to understand the customers and integrate myself into Campanian gastronomy, which I didn't know well professionally.
Introducing foreign elements would have been a mistake; I preferred to go through all the sections to fully immerse myself. Some feared that I wanted to take a different direction because I spent my days in the kitchen doing my experiments. My dad had already earned the second star, so we moved cautiously, not questioning a line that had always worked, risking losing customers. Then, in 2017, the sous chef decided to leave along with part of the team, and there I found myself having to take his place and formed my team of guys who wanted to do well.
Are there dishes that marked a turning point?
I think of il Giardino, which highlights the Sorrento tomato, and the Spaghetti with tomato, with red and yellow cherry tomatoes, where the protagonist is the oil. The key element that sets our cuisine apart is the central role of extra virgin olive oil, considered as an ingredient and not a mere condiment. I started going around to meet the suppliers, and when I found out I wasn't the first to visit, I was a bit taken aback. The line, however, was always clearer: a whole speech on the Mediterranean diet, making the guest travel. Some regulars frowned; things were added elsewhere, while I subtracted. However, my father always supported me, so I kept going.
How do you organize the tasks nowadays?
He is passionate about the market, so he manages most of the purchases; then he has charisma and loves being in contact with the customer, while I prefer to stay behind the scenes with the guys.
What changes with the third star?
I don't know yet. I've been to many three-star places in France, always with great respect; as an enthusiast, I've read many cookbooks and gastronomy history books. Psychologically, nothing changes for me; I feel the same. But I understand that it happened now because we reached the maturity necessary for a certain clientele. We are still a young group, with my brother Raffaele in the dining room and my girlfriend Annamaria at the front office. For us, it's a nice adrenaline rush. I've always felt free to create my dishes, but over time we've gathered the essential information to present them on the table in the best way.
Now many people will approach, new collaborations and important experiments will begin. But our cuisine will remain focused on the utmost respect for the territory and a philosophy that embraces the entire Mediterranean, understood this time in a Bourbon sense, with Sicily and all its influences.
This is the third star of redemption, as it was missing in the south since 2001, when Don Alfonso lost it.
And it fills us with pride. Campania has shown to have great chefs; in many three-star places worldwide, I found one of us. We inherited from our grandparents a sensory memory and innate taste from childhood. I grew up with the desire to bring the three stars back to Campania; I didn't work just for personal ambition, and perhaps that made the difference.
There was probably some caution on the part of the guide due to consistency issues in the large hotels in tourist areas. But when I returned home, I saw ordinary things with new eyes because maybe I had missed that fish or that tomato, a wonder that I wanted to convey to my guests. Then I always enjoyed my job, and serenity favors the achievement of great goals. Every morning I wake up with the awareness that I have to improve, and every night I wonder what should that be. This way, virtuous circumstances arise, everything becomes more and more precise, but gradually.