Pop Up People: Adalberto Battaglia
By Laura Martin
You know what they say - when life gives you lemons, make gnocchi. Or at least that’s what Italian chef Adalberto Battaglia did. After building up his career cooking in Rome, then as a head chef in Tenerife, he proudly opened his restaurant, Quinto/Quarto, in London in 2012. Five months later and after a legal dispute with an energy supplier, the restaurant was forced to close. But with a gritted determination, he relaunched his brand as a street food stall in 2013, becoming London’s first gnoccheria in Brick Lane, then expanded by hosting sell-out supperclubs the same year too. He’s currently in the middle of a 14-week run of a Thursday night pop-up called A Roman In Clapton, held upstairs at Palm 2, so we chatted to the larger-than-life, self-proclaimed King of Gnocchi about what influences his food, British vs. Italian nose-to-tail cooking and how he never wants to become a run-of-the-mill restaurant chef again.
Why did you decide to go into street food after the restaurant closed?
I really believed in my brand, my product and my concept, I trusted my cooking and with just a little budget I could cook again and I could start on the street. So we started with just one stall in the Boiler House food market on Brick Lane in February 2013 and it’s been growing, so now we have three stalls. Then in 2013 I got in contact with Grub Club and started doing supperclubs through them.
What made you specialise in gnocchi?
The first time we had the stall I came down with a selection of all different Italian pastas, paninis, risotto - a bit of everything. After a few weeks on the stall me and my wife noticed that the gnocchi were selling really well.
It definitely gave you something unique that no-one else was doing...
It’s true, we’re the first gnoccheria in London!
How did you get into cooking to start with?
Basically all Italians at some point in their lives they decide they want to do something with a restaurant. I actually started cooking quite late, when I was 29, but I took inspiration from Gualtiero Marchesi (who was the first person to be awarded a Michelin star in Italy). Gualtiero started when he was 40 so this made me think I could do it if I were a bit older too. I started off in Tenerife with a vegetarian restaurant 20 years ago, which was amazing. Now everyone is vegetarian, but 20 years ago we were very avant garde. At that time Spain had a strong influence in their cooking from the Basque country, and from laboratory cooking - like Ferran Adria - and our restaurant there had a little bit of that atmsophere. This is where I became head chef for the first time.
When did you make the move to England, and why?
I came to England in 2001, because I sold the restaurant in Tenerife. I had a lot of English customers in the restaurant who told me “come up to London, as it’s an amazing time for chefs”. The late ‘90s were an amazing moment and I came and I got my chance.
Did you work with any of big chefs of that time?
I worked at Quo Vadis under the management of Marco Pierre White. But not with him personally. I wasn’t there when he cut the the trousers of one of his chefs into bermuda shorts! I learned a lot. I stayed about six months there. It’s amazing what you learn in six months in those places. My two legendary mentors - although I haven’t worked with them but I learned a lot from the way they do things are, on the Italian side, Giorgio Locatelli and on the English side, Marco Pierre White.
How would you describe your cooking?
Well, it all goes back to the name of my old restaurant, Quinto/Quarto. The phrase comes from middle-aged Roman cooking, and it means “fifth quarter”. It goes back to when they used to cut the animals into four cuts and the offal or whatever was leftover was called the fifth quarter. The butchers were paid in this, so they were taking home these kind of cuts and the housewife would have cooked that, and that’s the Roman way of cooking, so ox tail, tripe, offal.
Sort of the Fergus Henderson/St John school of eating?
Yes - he’s another one of my legendary chefs, but he works with British heritage and I work with Italian heritage and the lesser-known dishes. Of course everybody knows bolognese, lasagna and osso bucco but there are so many more things that the British public don’t know about Italian and Roman food. By chance I found out the ox-tail is really popular in this country! I put cocoa powder in my oxtail sauce which is the twist because in the ancient times they used to cook with it.
And how does your supperclub work?
It was supposed to be weekly but it’s turned fortnightly. We still have five nights left and each week has a four-course dinner with a theme of Roman style of cooking, either fish, meat or truffles.
What’s the most popular night?
The truffle and the fish nights.
What made you make the move from street food to supperclubs?
I knew the interest in pop-ups was rising and were very interesting so when I lost my restaurant I thought that street food and pop ups were two chances to redeem myself. I love Palm2 space - I find East London very interesting.
What’s your signature dish?
At the moment, it’s the main dish I present during the night. The main course is always some meat or fish, then some gnocchi, then my signature pumpkin and Disaronno sorbet. I just made it up in my brain - it’s like a volcano in there for ideas! So you get a double contrast of hot and cold, sweet and sour.
Do you have any regulars at your events?
Yes, one of them used to be a regular in my restaurant in Rome. Then he followed me to London! And he comes to the stall and the pop-ups.
How did you decide on the concept for your supperclub?
The first one was a nose-to-tail event and Grub Club said it might be a difficult one to sell, but I said, no I want to go with the Italian nose-to-tail eating and we sold 50 tickets in just one week. This was in what used to be Unpackaged, on Richmond Road. From that night, we then did two games dinners and two fish dinners which also sold out straight away.
What’s the one ingredient you couldn’t live without?
The pasta. I like to make my own pasta and I like to cut my own meats. I go weekly to Smithfield market in the night. I like to know my meat - it’s so important. Like the Scotch fillet we serve at the supperclub, I want the best. My way of cooking is the trattoria style - not too fancy or with things like foams, but traditional and innovative and represented in the pure simplicity. This contrast is what fascinates me.
Would you go back to working in a permanent restaurant now you've found success in the supperclub world?
The thing I love most about my nights is that I get to talk to people and present each course by myself and I introduce the next course. I could not go back to being stuck in a basement kitchen and not seeing my customers anymore. I like to wear the chef whites and the apron, but not the trousers or chef shoes anymore. I'm like normal man, with my own trousers and shoes, but with chef whites and an apron - this is my style now.
The next Roman in Clapton supperclub is on Thursday 27th November - for more details see here.