The Mele e Pere Head Chef talks food and family.
If you’ve ever taken a walk around London’s historic Soho area, into the beating heart of the city’s West End, you’ll see Italian influences everywhere.
Italians first settled in large numbers in Soho in the first half of the 19th century, bringing with them tasty treats ranging from ice cream to pasta and good coffee, not to mention street entertainment and a host of new crafts.
In fact, the espresso revolution of 1950s London can find its roots in Bar Italia, a small late-night café which opened in Soho in 1949 and is still in business today. There are Italian delis and restaurants on every Soho street and narrow lane it seems, but one of the best-loved is a relative newcomer to the scene – Mele e Pere, which opened in 2012 on Soho’s historic Brewer Street.
Owned by Head Chef Andrea Mantovani, and his business partner Peter Hughes, the name is a knowing nod to the fact that this little part of Italy opened in the heart of central London and managed to successfully marry the cultural traditions of both countries. Mele e Pere is Italian for ‘apples and pears’ a phrase which, in turn, is Cockney rhyming slang for ‘stairs’, so there’s more to the name itself than first appears!
The neon name sign on the outside of the corner building signals a warm welcome and brings a sort of dazzle to the area on those London nights – and there are many – when it’s cold and raining. Inside the restaurant, wine glasses clink and people chatter, while diners deliberate over what dish to choose from on a menu that includes mouth-watering meals such as Potato Gnocchi with Umbrian Black Truffle and Tagliatelle with Beef Ragu.
Do any of those chattering diners realise that the latter dish has a very special connection to Andrea Mantovani’s own family table and his Italian ancestors?
“My mama taught me how to cook pasta when I was six years old,” explains the Head Chef in his charming and full Italian accent. “So I was at the cooker even at that young age.
“At the restaurant now, we have recipes that I took from my mama, like the Beef Ragu with Tagliatelle, it has always been on the menu at Mele e Pere. It’s a classic dish that I eat in my house in Italy.”
He’s heartfelt when to goes on to say: “To have the tradition and background that comes from my mama and my grandmamma is something really special for me and I’m proud to bring it to my restaurant today.”
It’s that Italian tradition of family and the importance of eating and cooking for the ones you love that shines through when Andrea talks. Cooking in Italy is a sign of love and a generosity of spirit. To cook is to care.
The decision to become a chef was an easy one for Andrea. Not only did he learn to cook from the best teacher a boy could have – his mama – but his lack of interest in scholarly pursuits was clear to his family, living in his native Verona, to see.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t so good at school and I remember one day my father had a chat with me, saying ‘Andrea you need to make a decision. You can carry on studying but that’s not working out at the moment so you need to find another solution’.
“He said he thought the best job for me was cooking because he saw that I had that passion in me. He saw my passion for cooking and I saw it too, and so I knew that that’s where my future was.”
After stints in the famous Harry’s Bar in Venice and the Four Seasons Hotel in Milan, Andrea’s career brought him to London, where he quickly built up a reputation as one of the finest Italian chefs in the city.
Along with Mele e Pere, Andrea also owns Gotto Trattoria in east London, with both restaurants offering a ‘neighbourhood trattoria’ atmosphere with an emphasis on high-quality meats and fish served with seasonal Italian ingredients. The Prosciutto di San Daniele and Gnocchi Fritti starter is a particular highlight at Mele e Pere.
“We always serve Prosciutto di San Daniele on our menu and I believe it’s one of the best prosciuttos,” says Andrea.
“It has always been on the menu and people come back again and again for it, so you can see that they really appreciate the product. I believe it’s one of the best tasting prosciuttos, and we’re proud to have it on our menu.
“The origins of it are important to me too, as well as the very special geography of San Daniele. The way the winds come down from the mountains and allow the meat to dry naturally helps to give it that wonderful flavour.
“For me, Prosciutto di San Daniele is something that’s always been a part of my family table during the week. It’s something really quick and delicious to have at lunchtime.”
As a Chef Ambassador for Prosciutto di San Daniele, it’s clear to see that Andrea has a genuine love for the ingredients he works with. Although his restaurant is one of the newer Italian dining destinations in Soho, with a passion like his, it’s guaranteed to be around for many more years to come.