As soon as you enter Marianna Vitale’s Ristorante SUD in Naples, you get a sense of her personality. The walls are adorned with her own artwork, the cookbooks she has collected over the years and items of significance from her childhood. She has made the building her own, much like the traditional dishes she creates in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Born in 1980, Marianna was brought up by her grandparents in Porta Capuana, Naples. Her father worked as a chef from time to time in local restaurants, although his first passion was for the famous Capodimonte ceramics, which he still continues to make today. Even at a young age, she loved nothing more than to watch the people eating in the local restaurants, and helping her grandmother in the kitchen. ‘When I was young I was always hungry and didn’t have many toys,’ she tells us, ‘so I was more than happy to help stir the sauces in the kitchen.’
Despite her early interest in food, Marianna decided to study for a degree in Spanish literature, choosing to hone her culinary skills at home instead. She took a job writing travel guides for Neapolitan tourists, but always dreamed of working in the kitchen. It wasn’t until 2008 when her father told Lino Scarallo, the head chef at Palazzo Petrucci, about his daughter’s passion for food, that she was given the opportunity. Lino invited Marianna to gain some experience in his restaurant, and she instantly fell in love with the profession.
Having Lino as a mentor taught Marianna the importance of using fantastic local produce and she soon started to research and integrate Neapolitan ingredients into her dishes. ‘Lino Scarallo taught me that to be a great chef, you must be a person with a sense of responsibility, simplicity and humbleness,’ she explains. ‘My approach to food developed under his eyes.’
When Marianna’s father retired, she was given full control of the family business. She decided to open a new restaurant away from the centre of Naples, choosing the quiet suburb of Quatro instead, with a sommelier called Pino Esposito. In May 2009 they opened Ristorante SUD, knowing they had a very challenging time ahead of them. But their gamble paid off, and just two years later Marianna received her first Michelin star. Other awards soon followed, and she was voted Best Female Chef of the Year by both L’Espresso and Identità Golose.
Marianna takes classical, well-known dishes and plays around with quantities, presentation and adds her own little tweaks which lend, in her own words, a ‘strong, feminine touch’. She loves using forgotten or rarely-used ingredients like offal and her only rule in the kitchen is that any ingredients can be combined, but no single one is more important than the others. Her creative, original flair has resulted in dishes such as Seafood soup with vegetables and fruit, Linguine with squid offal and Irpino veal tartare with figs and hazelnuts, while her recipe for Impetata – a mix of mussels, pepper and lemon in a cream sauce – was voted the Best Italian Dish of 2015.
As well as keeping Ristorante SUD a success, it’s incredibly important for Marianna to get people more interested in Italy’s varied cuisine. ‘Everyone thinks Italian food is all about pizza and pasta,’ she says, ‘but people must visit Italy to try the other authentic dishes and go to the places locals eat.’ She believes the country’s food scene is evolving, too, and hopes she can play her part in it. ‘I think the future of Italian cuisine lies in looking to the past and going back to tradition. It’s important to bring back old, forgotten recipes containing ingredients which are no longer used.’