Cute little Italian restaurants are not something Hackney has in abundance. Natty wine bars and original vegan concepts, perhaps; but the kind of snug neighbourhood places to return to for a plate of pasta or a low-key celebration, not so much. It’s for this reason that Dalla on Morning Lane feels so very welcome. Dalla is the debut restaurant project of music promoter turned 20th Century design dealer, Gennaro Leone, his chef brother Gianmarco, and ex-P. Franco chef Mitchell Damota. Between them, the trio has created a lovely local restaurant that works on those terms, but also rewards closer reading. We paid them a visit to find out more — here’s what you need to know.
If walls could talk, Dalla could tell you a thing or two about recent restaurant history.
Dalla occupies a tiny corner site on Morning Lane in Hackney, minutes away from the Burberry Outlet and the Nike Factory Store, if that helps with orientation. The site’s a very special one, having housed not one, not two, but three iconic East End restaurants in the space of a decade: Railroad Café, Legs, and Peg. (All three of taken away from us far too soon.) Gennaro Leone loves his little neighbourhood restaurant: “The size is perfect. To maintain quality, it needs to be small. The place is small; the menu’s going to be small; the wine list is going to be small.”
He loves the local area too, the life on the street, the kids passing by on their way school (apropos of which, he’s applying for a pedestrian crossing). He’s embracing his role as restaurateur with an outsider’s eye. “I love the idea of the owner being in the business, being there, being present. A face. I’m outside here talking to people all the time, to welcome them, get them to know what we are doing, even if they never come in. It’s about feeling.
In Dalla, 20th Century furniture and art collector Gennaro Leone has created his dream restaurant.
“I’ve been collecting for years, waiting for the right moment,” says Gennaro Leone of the furniture, hardware, and collector’s items housed at Dalla. Leone himself is a collector and dealer, specialising in 20th Century art and furniture, often Italian, which he sells and hires out of his showroom Spazio Leone at Hackney Downs Studios. His friend Oscar Piccolo, a Sicilian artist and maker, collaborated with him on realising his “dream restaurant”. Students of restaurant design will pinch themselves.
“I had a folder where I’d been saving things for a decades of places I’ve been, from Argentina, Brazil, Asia, when I was working at Boiler Room or travelling with my wife. Basically, it’s a celebration of all the places I’ve been, all the best places, all the small details.”
Let’s start at the door. Note the handle. Leone spotted it online while in Milan. He drove 220km to Turin and back in the driving rain to collect it. The designer is from Campania, like the Leone brothers; he moved to Turin in the economic boom of the ‘80s to work at the Fiat factory. The hand-hammered sign outside is made by an ironmonger on Naples’ historic Rua Catalana. Once inside, you’ll see a brass umbrella stand (“probably the first thing I bought, because it’s always raining in England”), a handsome ashtray, a stack of Alvar Aalto Stool 60s, and, on the kitchen counter, a wooden rotary dial telephone from Germany. “Yes, it does work,” offers Damota, rolling trofie at the pass.
The white chairs are by French architect and industrial designer Robert Mallet-Stevens, picked up from an old bistro in Bordeaux and fastidiously restored. (Leone has them in black at home; have a nosy on The Modern House). The speakers were made by speaker aficionado Shivas Howard-Brown of Friendly Pressure. From the ceiling hangs a rare Stilnovo 1950s chandelier by Bruno Gatta. The stainless steel sugar bowls, bud vases and bill presenters come from an old school supplier in Austria. There’s plenty more — but you’ll have to go see for yourself.
Chef Mitchell Damota is digging into the archives for his menu at Dalla.
In the kitchen is Canadian chef Mitchell Damota, formerly of P. Franco and Burro e Salvia. “He’s obsessed with those archival recipes, those nonna recipes that are getting forgotten,” says Leone. “Our mission is to bring them back.” Joining them in their mission is Gianmarco Leone, Gennaro’s brother, who left Claridge’s for Dalla.
Damota’s still building his supplier network which includes Ham and Cheese Co, Cibo and La Sovrana, which brings in produce twice a week from Campania. “I’m trying my hardest to work with some smaller English farms but there has become such a massive demand that it’s very difficult to get accounts with some of them.” He seeks a balance between local produce and traditional produce such as the Slow Food chestnut flour he’s using for his trofie. “Many years ago, wheat flour was much more expensive than chestnuts so in Liguria, people who didn’t have much money would dry out chestnuts and mill them to make trofie.” He serves his with some goats’ cheese and a winter pesto of marjoram and parsley.
On the soft launch menu, written on the blackboard in neat Italian schoolgirl cursive, are calzagatti e friggione from Emilia-Romagna (polenta and bean fritters with a sauce of tomato and onions), Sicilian melanzane a beccafico (aubergines stuffed with breadcrumbs, raisins and pinenuts), and tortelli mantovani (a filled pumpkin pasta from Lombardy). Dessert-wise, there will be “tiramisù as often as we can have it just because it’s so classic” as well as rum babà, a nod to the Leones’ home city Naples, and Damota’s “current obsession” which is whipped ricotta with saba (reduced grape must).
There will also be simple, perfect frutti di stagioni. “Desserts are great,” says Leone, “but sometimes all you need is some grapes, a pear, and a coffee.”
Dalla’s been working with a wine producer in Emilia Romagna on Dalla’s own label wine (coming soon). The list so far includes an accessible £5.50 a glass house pour, alongside covetable magnums from across Italy’s regions. The contents of the cellar will depend on the weather and the season; think natural whites in the summer, richer reds in the winter. “We’re trying to reintroduce more classical wines, a nice Nebbiolo, a nice Barolo.”
Damota’s menu will nourish Londoners like the nonna they never had.
Damota’s cooking is research-based. He’s interested less in restaurant dishes than in the sort of obscure dishes you’d find on the table in a family home; dishes they’ve been cooking the same way for generations. He cites cotechino con pearà, a Veronese bread sauce with bone marrow and beef stock by way of example. A Veronese supplier of his was astounded to see Damota cooking it; he’d only ever seen it at his grandmother’s house at Christmas before. “I’d never had the opportunity to eat it myself but I just came across it one day and became obsessed with learning how to make it. I made it last Christmas and my friend from Vicenza was like “I can’t believe I’m eating this dish right now in London.”
“I find it super interesting because for me, I’m not Italian so I can’t go back to dishes from my childhood, but even if you didn’t grow up and eat that food, there’s a sense of familiarity to it whether it’s the flavours, or the style of cooking, or the feeling you get when you eat it.”
Where does he stand on ‘authenticity’ I wonder? “I go back and forth. There are some dishes that I hold really near and dear to my heart that I think should be done one way but, that said, for something like pumpkin filled pasta there’s lots of different towns throughout northern italy that make it completely different. Some serve it with tomato sauce, some with butter, some with ragù; some put mostarda in the filling, some put black pepper. It’s always a bit different. There’s a lot of creativity in lots of those dishes and I definitely like to play around too.”
What with Damota at Dalla and Damota’s fellow Torontonian Sophia Massarella at Polentina, and Dara Klein at Tiella, could it be that ‘nonna’ cooking is a trend in the ascendant? “Hopefully it does become a trend,” says Damota. “Because a lot of these recipes, people will never get to experience them.”
At Dalla, we’re all Italian.
Dalla is a study in nostalgia – the food stirs these feelings, so too the tactile design details, that awaken memories of meals in our pasts, in our imagination, maybe even on film. The restaurant takes its name from legendary Italian singer Lucio Dalla, who was from Bologna but was considered an honorary Neapolitan. His music was the soundtrack of the Leone boys’ childhoods. We can’t promise his music will be on the playlist if you dine there; but you’ll see his face peering down at diners from the front of a CD positioned on a high shelf above the dining room.