Nadia Santini


Nadia Santini

As the proud owner of three Michelin stars since 1996, Nadia Santini is a chef at the very top of her game, combining the wow-factor of classical French cooking with the rustic, warming, welcoming flavours of Italy.

Dal Pescatore is often cited as one of the best dining rooms in Europe (if not the world). Classical, welcoming and deceptively simple, it manages to combine incredible food, faultless service and stunning surroundings. But while Nadia Santini is head chef in the kitchen, she will be the first to tell you that none of Dal Pescatore’s success would exist if it wasn’t for the four generations of the Santini family working together to make it what it is today.

Nadia was born in Vicenza and, like all good Italians, has fond memories of her mother preparing homemade meals in the kitchen. However, she had no real desire or thoughts of working in a professional kitchen until she met and married her husband Antonio Santini in 1974. His parents owned Dal Pescatore, a simple rustic restaurant in the Lombardian countryside, and Nadia started to see how restaurants worked. But it wasn’t until their honeymoon, spent visiting all the finest temples to gastronomy in France, that she truly fell in love with haute cuisine.

On their return, Nadia and Antonio set about making changes to the family restaurant, inspired by what they had seen in France. Little details such as the tables being placed further apart, installing large windows to bring the garden into the dining room and focusing on impeccable service made a huge difference. Nadia also started learning to cook in the kitchen, with Antonio’s grandmother Teresa and mother Bruna showing her the ropes.

‘Antonio’s mother had her own style which was very rich – lots of butter and Parmesan,’ says Nadia. ‘I tiptoed into this place hoping to find my own way just by helping out at the beginning. We had visited the great French restaurants to see what chefs like Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé and Georges Blanc were doing and how we could bring that wow-factor back to Dal Pescatore. In Italian restaurants back then quantity over quality was more common, so when I asked Antonio’s mother if we could change that she said no, because it would cheat people. That’s why we decided to combine the two – classic dishes and a friendly, generous Italian style of cooking but also following the seasons and ensuring everything tasted as good as it could.’

This combination of classic French and Italian cooking marked a new era for Dal Pescatore, and as Nadia began to take a more prominent role in the kitchen, the restaurant began turning heads. Chefs such as Gualtiero Marchesi visited and shared advice, and by the 1980s Dal Pescatore became well-known amongst Italy’s foodie elite. In 1990 the restaurant joined the prestigious Relais & Chateaux, in 1992 it was listed in Les Grandes Tables du Monde and in 1996 it was awarded a coveted third Michelin star – which it continues to hold today.

By the 1990s, Nadia had gone from knowing very little about professional cooking to one of the most respected and accomplished chefs in the world. But while she and Antonio had inherited the restaurant from Antonio’s parents, that didn’t mean the rest of the Santini family left the nest. Quite the opposite – Nadia will be the first to tell you that none of Dal Pescatore’s success would exist if it wasn’t for the four generations of Santinis working together both front and back of house. Antonio and Nadia will eventually hand the reigns to their own children, ensuring the future of the restaurant is just as bright as its past.

‘We inherited this restaurant from Antonio’s parents, who had previously inherited it from his grandparents, so we are going to give it to our children,’ explains Nadia. ‘I am very happy they believe in Dal Pescatore in the same way we believed in it when it was given to us. Our children were born and raised in this house – they were taught how to fish by their granddad here – and were given the chance to travel and experience the world before coming back here. Being a chef means you have a chance to make people happy, and I am happy that my children really understand that.

‘I want to give Alberto and Giovanni complete freedom in the kitchen,’ she continues. ‘They have seen the evolution of this restaurant and the sacrifices that have been made, and they know our purpose isn’t to become rich or famous, but just to get by doing what we love. All we want is for people to come here and leave knowing they had a good time and would like to come back here again.’

Nadia’s children have already worked in the restaurant for many years now – Alberto is the sommelier helping Antonio run front of house and Giovanni is in the kitchen, getting ready to take the head chef role in the future. Bruna, Nadia’s mother-in-law, still helps out in the kitchen from time to time, and Giovanni’s wife Valentina has been welcoming diners into Dal Pescatore since 2007. And while he’s still very young, Lorenzo – Giovanni and Valentina’s son – makes up the fifth generation of the Santinis, and no doubt will be helping out in any way he can when he comes of age.

For now, however, it is Nadia’s cooking style that attracts the world’s foodies to Dal Pescatore. While trends and fads may dictate the food served in restaurants based in the cities, the tiny hamlet where Dal Pesatore is based provides solace and tranquillity, with a more traditional, classical way of doing things. The serene surroundings, warm welcome and family atmosphere is just as important as the food on the plate – and Nadia knows this only too well.

‘I’m a firm believer in ethnopsychology and how being in a certain environment dictates what you want to eat,’ she says. ‘For example, if you were given a Caprese salad after three hours of climbing or visited Capri in the summer and were given venison with polenta, it wouldn’t be right. Swap those around, however, and they will taste amazing. Here, when it’s cold and foggy, we will make soups with potatoes and truffle or chickpeas and pork rind. These are dishes no one makes anymore, but I was taught how to make them and if I stop that tradition will be lost.’

Given her credentials, it’s no wonder that Nadia is held in such high regard by her peers. She has been called an ‘inspiration’ by the UK’s Angela Hartnett and ‘extraordinary’ by Anne-Sophie Pic – proving her influence extends far and wide across the globe. Her reputation is so inexorably linked to Dal Pescatore that it’s almost as if she was born into the role. Her sons are ready to carry on Nadia’s legacy when she eventually decides to hang up her chef whites – but for now, it’s her effortless ability to make simple, classic, beautiful dishes sing that cements Dal Pescatore’s status as one of the great Italian restaurants of our time.