Federico Riezzo

28th July 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

28th July 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

Federico Riezzo – food entrepreneur, drinks expert, world-class charmer – can be a hard man to pin down. Attempting to schedule this interview from London, we call and email him several times but receive only the occasional cryptic, cheerfully noncommittal reply. In the end our only recourse is to walk into his Dublin café Coppa, at the RHA gallery off St Stephen’s Green, and talk to him in person.

When you meet Federico face-to-face, as his customers will attest, everything is possible and nothing is too much trouble. We arrange a time to meet and he gives us a couple of espressos on the house. At 9am the following Monday, despite a heavy weekend at a friend’s wedding, he turns up at Coppa in high spirits and an outfit to match – a pink cardigan over a mustard-yellow jumper, red shoes, and a long orange woolly scarf. More espressos are consumed, then it’s back to his house in Blackpitts, a 10-minute cycle from the café, to listen to music (Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Bachman-Turner Overdrive – see Spotify mix below) and prepare for lunch.

Federico (“Fede” to his friends) is the perfect antidote to a freezing cold Monday morning. He’s exuberant, funny and a good raconteur – we hear about growing up in Rome, his bartending days in London and his impressions of Ireland, where he’s lived since 2012 – but he’s also generous with his attention: he wants to know what your story is, what you think, what you are all about. He’s also pretty handy in the kitchen: when his trademark sausage and roasted red pepper sandwiches are ready, we eat them standing up at the kitchen counter, greedily, until our hands and faces are covered in garlic mayonnaise.

The only hitch is that, by the time we get around to publishing this interview, Federico has already moved on: he’s left Coppa to concentrate on being an ambassador for Peroni, the Italian beer brand, and to set up a new bar events company in Dublin called Catch. A hard man to pin down, as previously noted, but whatever he does we’re sure it’ll turn out great.

Continued below...

Where are you from in Italy?

I was born in Milan but I grew up in Rome. My mum is from near Padua in the north, my dad was from Puglia in the south.

In your opinion, which Italian region has the best food?

Ah, that’s quite hard. There’s so much great food all over: mushrooms from the north, seafood from Sardinia and Sicily… But if I’m being honest, the area around Parma and Bologna is hard to beat. Italians are so fussy about their own regional food cultures but we all secretly agree that Emilia Romagna has the best food. That’s where parmesan comes from – the king of cheese. We’d be lost without it.

At the risk of invoking an Italian stereotype, is your mother the best cook in the world?

Of course! She’s a typical Italian mum, not because she’s got a moustache but because she’s incredibly resourceful. She uses everything. If she’s got bread left over, she’ll grate it into breadcrumbs or make stale bread cake. If she really has to throw away some bread, she kisses it before she puts it in the bin. The lesson is: don’t throw anything away, you can always make something up.

Has she had a big influence on your cooking?

She wouldn’t be very adventurous or creative with food but she has respect for the ingredients, which I appreciate. When I was young, I’d be coming back home from parties and she’d be up starting the tomato sauce for the Sunday. I’d go to bed, she’d go to church, and the sauce would be bubbling away.

Do you miss Italy?

It’s going through a bit of a crisis at the moment, but I still think that if you have a secure income, Italy is one of the best countries to live in. One thing that really gives it strength is the food and the conviviality of sitting around the same table. In Ireland you have a nice meal, then go down to the pub and tell each other stories. In Italy we’d sit down at 12 and finish eating at 5 or 6. But Ireland’s changing. I don’t know if it’s the influence of media and chefs on TV, but food has become really big thing over here. Young chefs are going abroad, learning new cooking techniques, then bringing them back here to apply to Irish ingredients, which is great.

I chose between dealing with angry chefs and knives and fires or surrounding myself with interesting people, girls, adventures, alcohol – it seemed like a no-brainer

So Irish people are starting to be proud of their food culture.

Oh absolutely. There was this big stigma where Europeans thought British or Irish food was all about over-boiled vegetables, a piece of steak thrown in the oven, but it’s totally untrue. There are great products, great ingredients, they just weren’t being exploited properly.

What would you serve to convince someone of the greatness of Irish food?

To me simple is always best. Three or four quality ingredients on a plate and you’re happy, so I’d give them Guinness bread with good butter and good smoked salmon.

Simple as that.

It’s really good. We can’t expect to have Irish peaches anytime soon so you have to work with what you’ve got.

Fede06

What drew you to Ireland?

I was living in London on and off for 12 years. London was great for that stage of life, from my late teens to 30, but it sucks the life out of you – life and money. I just wanted something a little easier. So after 12 years of London I was like, you know what? I’ve done it, I’ve got the t-shirt, filled up the travelcard, so I might as well try somewhere else.

Had you been here before?

Yeah my best friends were from Ireland, one from Dublin, one from Drogheda. I could see the potential of Dublin. There was less competition for what I wanted to do. Also Irish people are deadly, they’re just a great bunch.

I see you’ve picked up a bit of Irish slang there.

Definitely. Irish people are sound, they’re great craic, you know? [laughs] Very sweet, curious, unassuming, organically beautiful. There’s a lot of scumbags as well, but that’s everywhere I guess.

Do you see yourself here long-term?

I don’t know. To be honest I do miss the sun a lot.

Italy beckons?

Ah, Italy is hard for what I want to do in terms of bureaucracy, the dynamics of setting up a business, laws you have to abide by – it’s really unnerving. It’s funny, all the hot places in Europe are really hard to live in. Spain’s in bits, Greece is in bits, Portugal’s only slightly better. I don’t know, maybe Switzerland might be my next sunny place. But I was in Geneva recently and the prices are unreal. They charge €35 for a plate of pasta and pesto. My god, Elton John must have made that! So expensive.

Have you always worked in cafés and restaurants?

More in bars actually. When I was 20, I chose between dealing with angry chefs and knives and fires or surrounding myself with interesting people, girls, adventures, alcohol – it seemed like a no-brainer. So I did a cocktail course in London. I worked at Pharmacy1 back in the heyday, then moved to the Sanderson hotel – very fancy – then worked in a dive bar in New York for a bit. Later on I worked behind the bar at St John in Smithfield.

Fede09

Do you have a favourite bar in London?

I haven’t been over for a while, but places like Experimental Cocktail Club do some incredible things. Nightjar is very good. I haven’t been to White Lyan yet but I hear good things.

When did you set up Coppa?

March 2013, a year after I moved to Dublin. The café is off the beaten track in the RHA gallery. At first nobody was coming and I was questioning myself: maybe it’s the food. But it’s delicious! Then maybe it’s the service – but I’m great! So what’s wrong? Turned out I just had to give it a bit of time before people started coming.

So what’s the secret to a successful café?

What’s essential is the interaction with customers. It’s nice to give someone a bit of extra service, break the barrier between server and customer. It’s like Cheers, the place where everybody knows your name – we try to establish that. Very few places do it but it makes a whole lot of difference.

There aren’t many good cocktail bars in Dublin but I like this little bar on top of an Indian restaurant in Ranelagh. It’s very small but the guy who runs it knows what he’s doing.
Federico on his favourite Dublin restaurants and bars – see Address Book

Do you spend a lot of time in restaurants?

I have this problem: every time I go to a restaurant, I don’t enjoy the food because I’m always thinking about how the wine list is presented, the whole service, whether they’re on the ball. I’m not really the best person to go out for dinner with because I always get really distracted.

Which restaurant really impresses you?

I really like Busaba in London. It’s very simple. The food is easy yet people been getting the recipes down to a tee. It’s not formal, you can come in any time of day. There’s a communal table which I love. It’s great choice and I love Thai food. They’ve done it super-right. Plus it’s not expensive, you can get out for £20. It’s great.

But to be honest I would much rather do something at home and cook for my friends, because being at home opens up more possibilities. You can stay in and drink and do karaoke and I can improvise some cocktails. Also, it’s a lot more expensive going out for dinner. You’re looking at €50 a head, whereas at home, even if you invite six people, you can still be within €50 and everyone has a great meal. The only problem is the washing up after, but that’s another story.

Do you have late nights here?

Yeah we do. I’m a bad singer but I love karaoke. I’m an absolute sucker for it.

Do you listen to music while you cook?

Always. It’s very therapeutic: music, cooking, a glass of wine. I really love it.

What type of music?

Depends on the mood. If it’s very wintry, I’ll listen to some Chet Baker. If it’s sunny, listen to some more upbeat stuff – a bit of Charles & Eddie [sings] Would you lie to me baby.

How do you approach cooking at home?

I’m good at working with what’s available. It doesn’t take me long to figure out which ingredients will work together. It takes a little longer to refine the garnishes, the vessels, the way it’s got to be served, but what’s going on inside is easy – I can see the flavours working together.

Has your experience with cocktails fed into your cooking?

Yeah, and vice versa. I follow a certain order when I make drinks and I wouldn’t put two things together that are totally foreign. If I’ve got something warm like rum, then I might use something with apricot. Or with something spicy I’ll use saffron and toasted vanilla. But I wouldn’t mix, say, elderflower and coffee – I’m not that adventurous. To me it has to make sense, whether it’s a drink or a sandwich – there has to be a relation between ingredients.

I drink an industrial number of espressos… In Italy we tend to drink a lot more robusta, which is not as refined – it’s like a big drum at a harp concert

Would you cook a lot of Italian food at home?

Italian food for me is the best, because of the quality of the ingredients. But one thing I found in the UK is that there is an incredibly good selection of food. In Italy you’re restricted to cooking Italian food, whereas in the UK and over here you go to the supermarket and find incredible produce from all over.

So you cook things from all over?

Yeah. I go through phases. For the last few months, I’ve been obsessed by gyoza. On Sunday, I was making this broth with kale, gyoza, soy, chicken breast: very healthy. Sometime I’ll buy ingredients for Indian food, eat it for a month, then put them in the freezer.

Fede19

Is there anything you don’t eat?

The only thing I don’t eat really is tripe, because of the consistency. I’m not a big fan of broth, again because of the consistency. But I’ve travelled through South America and Asia quite a lot eating larva, Bear Grylls-style, so I’m not fussy.

What’s your approach to coffee? Do you drink it Italian-style?

It’s a bit of a hybrid. Jay Rayner wrote a great article complaining about this trend for sour-tasting coffee that’s come in from Australia. I totally agree with that. In Italy we tend to drink a lot more robusta2, which is not as refined – it’s like a big drum at a harp concert you know? Anyway I drink an industrial number of espressos.

On The Menu

Lunch with Federico Riezzo
Dublin, February 2015

To eat:

Tuscan sausage sandwich

To drink:

Espresso

How many a day?

When I’m at work, probably between six and eight. I would open up at 7.30am and start my coffee orgy then. But if I’m not at work, I’m not desperate for coffee. I just have it because it’s there. It’s fuel. Or a drug, whichever you prefer.
In Italy you would never drink milky coffee after 12, because we believe that if you’re full the milk coagulates with the acids in your tummy. So I find it funny that sometimes Irish people will have a pulled-pork sandwich with a pea soup and then ask for a hot chocolate. Ugh! It’s like: “How was your food?” “It was a bit salty.” “Oh, and how was your hot chocolate?” “It was great!”

Different cultures, eh?

Absolutely.

Federico has started up a bar events company called Catch. More details here

Coppa Café is at the RHA Gallery, 15 Ely Place, Dublin 2. www.coppa.ie

Fede14

  1. Bar/restaurant in Notting Hill backed by Damien Hirst and Matthew Freud, which ran from 1998 to 2003
  2. A species of coffee that can be grown at lower altitudes in higher temperatures and is therefore more suitable for mass production than the more refined Arabica bean. Coffee connoisseurs tend to look down on robusta but it is still favoured in Italian coffee culture

Posted 28th July 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

More Interviews

Zoe Adjonyoh – The chef & food writer cooks Moroccan chicken for lunch, recounts a journey to her Ghanaian roots and explains how a pot of peanut butter stew launched a flourishing food career

Roger Phillips – The horticulturalist and food writer takes us around his secret London garden, discusses his deep-rooted love of mushrooms and explains why he sleeps in his kitchen

Erwin Gegenbauer – The master vinegar brewer takes us on a tour of his Vienna factory, explains why local produce is “boring” and makes us breakfast featuring his own honey, oil, coffee, beer and cider

Ryan Chetiyawardana – The cocktail pioneer devises an elaborate pairing menu, explains the deceptively simple idea behind his bars, confesses a major food aversion and recalls his favourite ever meal