Sprinkling Italian Flair on an Island in the Atlantic

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The locals were wary when octopus and whitebait suddenly appeared on the menu at Little Venice more than 50 years ago.

Those open-minded enough to try out such unusual dishes soon discovered they were merely an early taste of a new wave of international flavours that revolutionised Bermuda’s cultural cuisine throughout the coming years.

Emilio Barbieri, the veteran Italian restaurateur, recalled the reaction to those new delicacies when he took over Little Venice in 1971.

“Being the only Italian restaurant, we wanted to introduce a wider selection,” he said. “We introduced things that were strange to the locals, like octopus, and the whitebait that they used for fishing in the winter. Fried calamari. Poached calamari.

“People were sceptical in the beginning, but we showed them to squeeze some lemon in it, and it’s great!”

About 70 years ago, the island boasted fine-dining options such as the Penthouse Restaurant with its French and English influence, as well as hotel restaurants for visitors and popular diners like Paraquet. International menus, however, were few and far between.

That began to change in the 1950s, when local couple Emmanuel and Mary Calleja enjoyed their Venice honeymoon so much, they decided to create their own Little Venice restaurant on Bermudiana Road.

Mr Barbieri, who arrived in Bermuda as a teenager in 1960 to work as a waiter at the Coral Beach Club, ended up taking over that restaurant, in partnership with Franco Bortoli, a colleague he had met while working at Sonesta Beach.

In its early years, the restaurant had been a cheap and cheerful trattoria-style venue with frescos on the wall, and plastic grapes on the tables. But Mr Barbieri and Mr Bortoli, with their vast knowledge of the restaurant industry, quickly injected some Italian flair.

“We created a family ambience to move things forward,” Mr Barbieri said. “You need a happy team, where everyone puts their heart into it – that’s what makes a venue. When the guests see the electricity flowing, that reflects well for our guests. We did that very well through the 1970s.

“We established ourselves because we really believed in building up a good local clientele. That was our best marketing device, because they would tell all the tourists and everyone else that this was a good place to go.”

They also found that by giving local ingredients an Italian twist, they could introduce a whole new dish. Bermudians were accustomed to lobster, for example, but local lobster Fra Diavolo – linguine with local lobster in a spicy tomato sauce – was another thing altogether.

In 1976, Mr Bortoli left for Australia and another Italian, Gioacchino “Jacky” Di Meglio, who had been working as dining room manager for six years, stepped up as partner.

Mr Di Meglio explained that throughout the 1970s, many people from his home island of Capri, such as head chef Antonio “Papino” Astarita, helped create an “infectious and fun atmosphere that you felt the second you would walk in.”

Since then, the business has expanded into a booming group of restaurants that has helped Bermuda’s global culinary culture continue to evolve.

“Through the years, we realised that we needed to give our clientele a variety. It was important to spread out the Mediterranean cuisine,” Mr Barbieri said. “It gives people a better choice, especially if they like to go to restaurants two or three times a week.

“We had the staff to do it, because we were able to bring in chefs from around the world. This meant we could expand our menu in a way that was the real thing – it was not a copy.”

Mr Di Meglio added: “Some of the people who arrived on the island to work within the Little Venice group have stayed and started their own restaurants.”

MEF has also given Bermudians the chance to travel to Italy to further their hospitality skills. And, while it may be 4,000 miles from Italy, Bermuda has proved the perfect location for Mediterranean fare.

“The Mediterranean diet is simple,” Mr Barbieri said. “We have amazing fish and seafood in Bermuda, and some of the herbs like sage and parsley are here too.”

It’s all been good news for visitors seeking to dine out on their summer vacation, of course – but also for culture-loving Bermudians.

“We were always focused on local residents because we have them 12 months a year,” Mr Barbieri noted.

Today, MEF has built up a portfolio of restaurants and cafés, suiting a range of tastes from the simple to the exquisite.

With its renowned wood-burning pizza oven, La Trattoria flies the flag for the Napolitan influence in a busy Hamilton side-street; Fourways Restaurant and Inn brings a quintessential Bermudian formal-dining experience in a charming and intimate setting; Harbourfront specialises in seafood and sushi next to the water; L’Oriental offers authentic Asian fusion cuisine from a balcony under the stars, directly above Little Venice. The MEF line-up also includes Little Venice Wine Bar, Blu, Aurora, Café 4, L’Oriental Express and the Lido Complex, including Mickey’s Beach Bistro and Bar, and The Deep.

Further plans are afoot for two new restaurants in the resurgent former capital, St George’s: Achilles Restaurant, due to open in May with a ‘MediterrAsian’ menu at the old Blackbeard’s Hideout Restaurant; and an Italian venue planned at the former Carriage House site.

The key to continued success has not changed. “You come together; you stay together. What really works is working together,” Mr Barbieri said. “It’s the formula established from the beginning and it still stands today.

“We always know we can do better, and there’s always improvement that can be done. Being in hospitality, you never say ‘No.’ That’s been paid back throughout the years.”

Mr Di Meglio said that over the years he has catered for numerous high-profile political figures and famous visitors to the island. But he insisted: “My favourite things have been the welcome I received from Bermudians when I first arrived on the island, creating connections, watching generations of Bermudians come through the doors, and being a part of shaping the Bermuda food scene.”

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