Chef Profile: Meet Alex Signorelli and say hello to his second food venture
Born and bred in Bergamo, Alex Signorelli is famous for bringing authentic Italian flavours to the menu at Signorelli’s, his Cambridge deli and bistro. As he unveils a second food venture - the Mediterranean-inspired La Piazza at The Grafton’s Food Social - he chats to Alice Ryan
To start at the beginning: tell us about your culinary heritage. What kind of food did you grow up with?
I’m a third generation restaurateur, so I’ve been surrounded by food since birth. My late father and two of his brothers were professional chefs, so no matter where we went as a family, food was always the hot topic! I grew up in Bergamo, Northern Italy, a region filled with culinary delights. My childhood favourites were casoncelli alla bergamasca, polenta, cured meats and stews.
Did you always want to work in the food industry? What path did your career take?
No! I hated it every minute of my childhood, as I spent all my spare time in the kitchen helping mum and dad in their restaurants instead of playing with friends. However, I now don’t regret this at all, as it’s made me who I am.
When we originally moved to England, when I was 14, my parents opened a restaurant in Colchester and I remember finishing school, swapping my tie for a bowtie, and catching a bus to the restaurant to help mum, dad and my older sister.
This went on for a few years, then both me and my sister didn’t want to carry on, so we decided to sell the business. My sister went back to Italy and I decided to carry on with my studies, through college to university which, in my family, was unheard of - I was the first of the Signorellis to attend and graduate from a university.
During my time in the kitchen, I’d fallen in love with the world of business; my dad exposed me to the commercial side of the operation at a very young age, as well as peeling potatoes and washing up.
After graduating, I was lucky to be hired by Coca Cola as a junior account executive and I loved it. I was exposed to some of the best commercial training available and also climbed the corporate ladder to lead my own team. However I always found myself always visiting small independent food outlets and wondering what I would do differently. . .
Then, after 10 years working for Coca Cola, I decided I wanted to go back to the very same industry I hated so much as a child! But this time I wanted to step away from restaurants as we know them and create an outlet that offered the very things I love about Italy.
Signorelli's is much-loved in Cambridge. Remind us how and when it came to be - and what makes it unique on the city's food scene?
The local response has been amazing since the first day we opened back in 2017; much more so than I ever expected. I had a simple agenda when i was creating Signorelli’s Deli, which was to remain true to my roots, not cut corners on quality and promote small Italian producers. The unique element has to be the bakery. The bakers and chef arrive at Signorelli’s at 4.30am to get everything ready, seven days a week. Their passion is also the driving force.
You've just cut the ribbon on a sister enterprise, La Piazza. What do the two ventures have in common? And what marks them apart?
Whereas Signorelli’s Deli is exclusively Italian, La Piazza is taking a wider Mediterranean approach, expanding to deliver the same authenticity of food and service from our close neighbours of Portugal, Spain and Greece, as well as Italy. The main difference, though, is the vibe that it offers: La Piazza translates as a town centre square which, all around the Med, would be lined with bars, cafes, bakeries. . . This is where the concept was born.
The food offering is in the Spanish tapas style, so you’re able to create your own tapas from our wide choice of salads, pastas or meat dishes. La Piazza is also a fully licensed wine and cocktail bar so, just like a town square in the Med, you can just pop in for a coffee in the morning or a great glass of vino or cocktail in the evening.
What made now the right time to expand? With Brexit on the near horizon, was it a big decision?
Deciding to open a second outlet is never an easy decision and it’s one I thought long and hard about. But this is where the guys at the Grafton come in - and its owners, Legal & General, who actually gave me my first shot as a solo entrepreneur. It’s actually thanks to them that I’m here.
Brexit or uncertainty should never be a factor for not doing business. My late father taught me that it’s the entrepreneur that sees positives and opportunities where everyone else sees negatives; it’s about adapting your services to meet the needs of the consumer. This is why I didn’t want to open a restaurant, but more of a social venue where you can either come for a good glass of wine or decide to have a bit of food.
If we've yet to visit La Piazza, what should we order? Any signature dishes or drinks to recommend?
The million-dollar question! I would probably say every dish is a signature, as they all go through numerous rounds of testing before making it into our display chillers. As a result, I’m proud to serve every dish available at La Piazza.
However, if I had to choose, based on the volume of sales it would have to be the Tuscan sausage and wild mushroom lasagna with a white béchamel sauce in one tapas bowl, beef meatballs in a second, and a Greek salad with an extra topping of potatoes in rocket pesto in a third.
Most importantly, I would look to have a good glass of either Amarone della Valpolicella or Barolo wine with these dishes - and finish up with one of our signature cocktails, our take on the espresso martini.
Have you seen the Cambridge food scene evolve since you opened Signorelli's? How would you describe it now?
Oh yes. And my days, has Cambridge embraced the food scene - in my opinion, it now has one of the best food scenes in Great Britain, encompassing some award-winning businesses. We’re proud to have picked up a couple of awards this year ourselves, including Best Cafe/Bistro in the East of England in the Great British Food Awards. Our bakers also came second for both their ciabatta and sweet bread at the World Bread Awards.
The likes of SmokeWorks, Steak & Honour, Stir, Fitzbillies, La Pergola, Tradizioni and Nanna Mexico, just to name a few, have started a great wave of artisan food enterprises in Cambridge. I am so proud to be a part of this wave and the next wave, too, as part of Food Social at The Grafton. With some amazing independent outlets like Amelie, Chi and The Duck Truck offering quality street food in a safe and warm environment, it’s a one-stop destination for any food lover.
Have you any festive specials or events coming up at either venue?
We are looking to host a special Mozzarella Masterclass. We tried it last year at Signorelli’s Deli: we shipped over from Naples an amazing mozzarella maker called Biagio, who brought over the raw materials from his farm, and on the night he bought people how to make mozzarella balls on the spot. It was an amazing thing to see but also very tricky! We’re also planning to host more of our famous wine tastings and cocktail masterclasses. Check our social channels for updates.
Will you be in the kitchen on Christmas Day?
Christmas Day? I’m planning to sleep! There’ll be no kitchen for me this year, as it will be my first Christmas with my little girl. I want to spend the day with my family, opening presents and just taking a step back and watching my little angel enjoy her first Christmas experience.
Signorelli’s Deli is at 17 Burleigh Street, Cambridge CB1 1DG, and La Piazza is at Food Social, The Grafton, Cambridge CB1 1PS. For more visit signorellisdeli.com, search Signorellis-Deli-Cambridge on Facebook and follow @signorellisdelicambridge on Instagram.
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