Features 3 minutes 27 February 2024

Chef Talk with Antonio Mermolia and Gennaro Russo

They may be on different continents, but these two Italian chefs share a passion—and a friendship.

We recently spoke with Chef Mermolia at One MICHELIN Star Fiola (Washington, D.C.) and Chef Gennaro Russo at Le Sirenuse's La Sponda (Amalfi Coast, Italy) to learn more about what they enjoy about being in the kitchen, what they love to cook, and what they do when they're not behind the stove. 

Read our Inspectors' takes on Fiola and La Sponda

How long have you been cooking? 

Chef Mermolia: I started cooking when I was 13 years old for myself and my friends. I learned from my mother Marisa, and I never stopped since then. I have been cooking professionally for 17 years. 

Chef Russo: I have been cooking for 21 years.

What drew you to this profession? 

Chef Mermolia: My family has been in the business for generations. My great- grandparents used to produce liquor and had a bottega or “shop.” My grandparents from both sides had a small boutique salumeria and vineria. My parents run a small boutique hotel and restaurant, so I was born surrounded by a love and dedication to cooking.  

Chef Russo: It was a need because when I would come back from school, my parents would be working so I began to cook for myself.

What do you see as the difference between Italian cuisine for the Italian diner and Italian cuisine for the American diner? 

Chef Mermolia: Italians in Italy experience great regional cooking daily, so when they go to a restaurant--especially in a high-end restaurant--they are often looking for what is new and unknown….a journey to escape the “daily.” An American diner may not have Italian food daily, so they are often looking to discover the Italian traditions and for real Italian flavors.  Both Italians and Americans are great gourmands and are looking for delicious culinary experiences.

Chef Russo: Over recent years, American diners have become increasingly knowledgeable about Italian cuisine. At Le Sirenuse, we cater to a predominantly international clientele, applying the same culinary principles as we would for Italian diners.

Courtesy of Chef Russo / Roberto Salomone
Courtesy of Chef Russo / Roberto Salomone

Is there a difference between cooking in a big city vs cooking on the Amalfi Coast? 

Chef Mermolia: Absolutely.  The ingredients are a big factor, but also the locations.  Cooking in Amalfi Coast requires a sense of place and a connection to the territory. Cooking in a big city outside of Italy requires stimulation of the imagination, a nostalgic take, and the responsibility to create connections to Italian culture and flavors.

Chef Russo: Yes, there is a difference because in the big city you cook with different influences. In Amalfi, the people want and need the traditional flavors of the Amalfi Coast. For example, when I was in Paris, I cooked French with an Italian or a Japanese twist. In Amalfi, you have a responsibility to reflect the territory.  

How would you define Italian food?

Chef Mermolia: For me, Italian cuisine is a mix of three essential things: people, tradition, and emotion. First, there are the people who dedicate their lives to craft incredible ingredients. They are driven by quality and never compromise. Second, there are traditions based on the various areas of Italy. These traditions are based on the ingredients produced there and the people behind their production. These traditions are carried on for generations and have become a part of the traditional dishes that are often well known by many. Finally, there is an emotional significance associated with these traditions that impact people during their lives. There are memories of rituals that have taken place for generations and generations. There are emotional flavors associated with memories to places and with our mothers, grandparents, and family members who might not be with us anymore. These culinary traditions keep them alive in our hearts.

Chef Russo: Italian food is a cuisine of history, culture, and product.

Roberto Salomone / Brechenmacher & Baumann
Roberto Salomone / Brechenmacher & Baumann

What are your favorite dishes to make at the restaurant vs. at home? 

Chef Mermolia: At Fiola, I am focused on the whole experience and its multiple ways of creating connections to food with the guests. It’s a way of sharing emotions and personal takeaways. At home, I love to make sourdough bread for my wife and kids. It has become our tradition to make together every Sunday.

Chef Russo: At home, my favorite is spaghetti al pomodoro. At the restaurant, I don’t have a favorite plate, I love everything! It depends on the day.

What is Fiola’s signature dish? 

Chef Mermolia: Today I would say our signature is our gnocchi, burro e formaggio. It is such a simple dish, but we went very deep into understanding it.

What is La Sponda’s signature dish? 

Chef Russo: Fagotelli alla Genovese with black truffle.

Courtesy of Chef Mermolia / Christie Allison
Courtesy of Chef Mermolia / Christie Allison

How would you describe your restaurant? What do you want guests to experience? 

Chef Mermolia: Fiola’s general manager, Giuseppe Formica, and I want to transport our guests to a nostalgic journey of what Italy is to us, what we love about it and what we want to share with the world. Our goal is to bring memories of Italy to our guests and inspire them to go and visit!

Chef Russo: La Sponda is a romantic and elegant place, yet relaxed. It is most important that the guest has felt at home and welcome.

What do you enjoy about your career?

Chef Mermolia: I love the idea that no matter I am in the world, I can still do what I love most - share my memories, dreams, and emotions through cooking!

Chef Russo: I love that I have traveled a lot and met a lot of people from different backgrounds and cultures. I feel lucky to have made relationships like I have made with Chef Antonio, and that after many years, we can call each other true friends.

What do you love about your restaurant/location? 

Chef Mermolia: I feel very lucky to be at Fiola with Fabio Trabocchi and our team, Rigo, Luis, Sarah, and Giuseppe. We have connected since day one. We are blessed to be in the Capital - a beautiful city surrounded by monuments and history, doing what we love most.  

Chef Russo: To work at Le Sirenuse has meant for me, over the years, to build a deep connection with our team that feels more like a family. Also, the beauty of Amalfi Coast means that my drive every morning is breathtaking, and to look at it every day I feel blessed.

If you didn’t cook, what would you do?

Chef Mermolia: I would probably be a basketball coach, since I love basketball like I love cooking.

Chef Russo: An automobile designer because I have a love of everything that goes into it; the design, the concept, and the performance.

Christie Allison / Greg Powers
Christie Allison / Greg Powers

Hero image: Le Sirenuse 

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