Speaking to Chef Valentino Cassanelli makes you want to pack your bags, move to Tuscany and eat copious amounts of pasta for the rest of your life. His dishes are a free expression of Italian cuisine, drawing inspiration from his life experiences and the rich biodiversity surrounding the coastal town of Forte dei Marmi, a gem of Versilia, in Tuscany. The Sybarite sat down with the emerging, young chef to speak to him about the success of his restaurant in Fortei dei Marmi, Lux Lucis, what is was like winning a Michelin star for Lux Lucis and why pasta is really his true love.
Where did your love for cooking come from?
I was born into a traditional family in the countryside of Modena, so from a young age I started to be attracted by Sunday lunches’ conviviality. When my grandmother would begin preparing tortellini and lasagne early in the morning, I helped her, stealing from time to time the filling: I was so curious about their taste and flavours! From those early experiences, it was natural for me to decide to share my interest and passion for the gastronomic world: I learnt first hand to appreciate the happiness you get from cooking for others, which is why I decided to become a chef.
How is your food at Lux Lucis influenced by your beautiful coastal location of Forte dei Marmi? What makes the food special?
This incredible region, which has the sea close at hand and at the same time sits near beautiful and high mountains, continuously influences me. In the middle, there’s this rich territory with abundant and unique ingredients. Thanks to its geography, Forte dei Marmi is quite an exclusive town, but, at the same time, it’s strategically located to have easy access to transport facilities and fascinating artistic cities. The Tyrrhenian Sea is only 200 meters away, and the Apuan Alps are 15 kilometres distant from us. In normal situations, there’s a buzzing local and international tourism. The low season, however, allows us to dedicate time to research new menus and travel. The location is also important for the wine pairing: the wineries in Tuscany are incredible, both small and big.
You work closely with your Sommelier Sokol Ndreko at Lux Lucis – how do food and wine at the restaurant work together in partnership?
Sokol and I have worked together since the Lux Lucis’s opening. We have the same idea of beverage pairing: it’s important that we both have a mutual understanding of the components that make up a dish in order to choose the best combination, with the drink pairing acting as an ingredient and enhancing the flavour of the food. We are both constantly researching products and ingredients and often begin dishes with the flavours of a particular wine. Sokol can make some incredible classic and less common pairings with specific flavour profiles of the wines. The guests can have some delightful surprises along the journey with him. Of course, there is a predominance of wine pairing, but we also use a lot spirit infused juices and cocktails from the bar. As well as being a great sommelier, he is a great man: we are good friends, so it is easy now to interconnect our jobs.
Congratulations on receiving your Michelin star in 2017. What was that experience like?
My philosophy and the way I work remain the same. My team and I continue to work hard every day to find new ways to tell our story. The customer base has changed in the sense that they seem more curious than before and demand a high standard when visiting our restaurant. Because of this, I expect my staff to remain focussed, motivated and above all, passionate at all times.
What makes the rooftop location of Lux Lucis so unique?
Lux Lucis is located on the panoramic rooftop of Hotel Principe Forte dei Marmi, five stars luxury property, on the same floor of the multi-awarded 67 sky lounge bar. We offer an experience deeply connected to the territory. It’s not by chance that you can observe the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Apuan Alps and all the fantastic surroundings of Versilia from the dining room. That, together with my personal experience and my team’s work, is precisely what we like to represent in each dish.
For an Italian, winning Pasta of the Year in 2020 must have been a very special honour too – what is your favourite pasta dish and one that everyone should try?
We are pleased about the pasta award for the Spaghettone with anchovies in burrata water, umeboshi and caviar. The key in that dish is the anchovies broth: we cook the pasta into it so with the reduction we get an intense flavour of the sea, really Italian.
Pasta is a complex but straightforward dish, generally speaking. Everyone makes pasta at home, so it is key to be fast, constant and passionate. There is no secret, you should have the best ingredients, cook the pasta right on point, add a pinch of acidity to help against the flavour of amid, and the result will be a taste rich in the mouth. I’m so Italian when I talk about pasta!
Was it always your dream to return to your home country and open your own restaurant?
I started travelling and working far from home since I was very young; thus, my dream has always been to one day have the possibility to do what I love in total freedom, choosing where and how. I love working at Principe, and Lux Lucis is my treasure, my present and my future. However, like many, I also keep on having many projects, many “dreams” in the background, and opening a small social place in my hometown is one of them.
Is Italian cuisine your favourite and what makes it so special?
The ingredients, its taste and the emotion it gifts: these make Italian food so unique. There is incredible biodiversity in the country, and the gastronomic culture of food is embedded into society: there are many opportunities and options within Italian cuisine.
What makes Forte dei Marmi such a lovely location, and why should everyone visit it?
Forte dei Marmi is a small village, quiet with really high service standards, fabulous restaurants, beach clubs, shops. You can easily move from one side of the town to the other by bicycle. It is exclusive and for everyone; it is close to some of the best Italian art cities such as Lucca, Pisa and Firenze and just half an hour away from the incredible Cinque Terre. The surrounding is fantastic: we are on the coast of North Tuscany, by the sea, full of pine and olive trees, and near the Apuan Alps with its unique greenwood and white marble cave. But, the real reason why you should come to Forte dei Marmi is to dine at Lux Lucis, live the experience of the Dalmazia Beach Club – with its newly renovated Dalmazia restaurant – and enjoy a magnificent stay at Principe Forte dei Marmi.
The pandemic has seen a horrible time for the hospitality industry worldwide – how were you affected and how did you manage to adapt?
Obviously, it has been very tough for everyone; we changed our living standards, business models, personal priorities, and rules. This period particularly challenges us to keep thinking ahead with a positive attitude while still floating in an unexpected and unstable period and an ever-changing world.
What is next for Valentino? A second Lux Lucis?
Lux Lucis is my present and my future. Like many, though, I also have many projects in the background that combine it with my personal and the brigade’s involvement, exploring my passion for the world of food, beverage and hospitality.