Not to be this girl, but I got back from a trip to Italy in October, feeling starved for even a tiny bit of what I felt there. I also happened to be looking for a new restaurant job, one where I could feel passionate about the food and the process behind it. The stars aligned and I found myself starting a new job at Sprezza.
Italian food reveals an ancient truth about cooking: food is better when it’s cooked with love. We try to replicate that in America, and it’s my personal opinion that many Richmond restaurants succeed in this endeavor. But who can cook like an Italian better than, well… an Italian?
Enter Alessandro Zamuner. Though he studied many other topics in school, like Latin, Greek… not the typical American repertoire, Alessandro always had a passion for cooking. “I always ate like a king when I was little,” he remarks. His love of food started in his childhood home in Naples, with the care that his family infused into their cooking.
He has two restaurants in Italy with his father. The first opened in 2014 when he was still in high school, and his “passion started to grow.”
Even though his father is a chef, Alessandro’s family worried for him as he became one too, knowing that the life of a chef is difficult. The creativity and passion that cooking requires means very little time off, working holidays and weekends when others are free. But for Alessandro, the sacrifice is worth it when he sees the emotions that his food inspires in others.
After graduating high school, Alessandro spent time in Ireland as a chef at a family friend’s restaurant, where he began learning English. It was his first time working in a restaurant as a chef rather than a server. After 3 months, he moved back to Italy and started “La Tavola dei Cavalieri” with his father in his hometown, Gaeta.
“Can I say that the job, at the moment, saved my life.” Waking up in the morning, Alessandro had so much to do to keep the restaurant flourishing, dedicating all of his time to this labor of love.
Since all of the other restaurants in Gaeta have been there for thirty or forty years, with the same menu for that entire period of time, it’s no wonder that his innovative cooking makes their restaurant extremely popular. At “La Tavola dei Cavalieri”, the menu changes almost weekly, depending on what is currently fresh and inspiring. The cuisine is traditional family recipes, reminiscent of Naples.
When Angela visited Italy over the summer with a friend, she happened to choose Gaeta as her destination, and went to Alessandro’s restaurant after seeing that it had the best reviews in a wide radius of miles. She was absolutely enamored by the food and the thoughtfulness behind it. She even dubbed it “the best meal that I’d had in a very long time, and honestly one of the best meals that I’d ever had in a restaurant.” Alessandro came out to greet them after dinner, and the two bonded.
Angela immediately told her friend that she would get Alessandro to come back and cook for Sprezza, and it quickly became a dream come true. After just one week of staying in contact, Angela asked Alessandro to come to America and cook for Sprezza, and he said yes!
Though Alessandro knew very little English when coming here, it’s evident that he is fearless and determined, and his love of cooking is the biggest force in his life. Angela confirmed this when she said “He’s not afraid of anything.”
There’s an Italian word, antesignano, that imperfectly translates to forerunner, or pioneer. It’s a masculine noun that refers to the idea of bringing a concept, technique, or art to a new place, being the first to impart the knowledge. Alessandro is Richmond’s own antesignano, sharing his wisdom, creativity, and the essence of his recipes with us before he goes back to Italy. For this city, it’s entirely new.
The intentionality of Alessandro’s cooking is one aspect that Angela really admired, as it reminded her of the way that she grew up eating. Finding fresh ingredients has been a challenge in Richmond, as they are less accessible here than in Italy. But their like-mindedness has made Angela and Alessandro a dynamic duo. Alessandro lives on the sea in Gaeta, and seafood is very central in Angela’s family’s Pugliese cooking as well, so they have this traditional culinary origin in common.
“For a lot of my pop-ups, I did feel very isolated and alone,” Angela reflected. It was difficult starting from scratch and cooking in a way that Americans are not used to. Since the beginning of their collaboration, Angela has felt supported and empowered with Alessandro by her side, along with her brother, Sergio.
Both Alessandro and Angela likened food to religion, with a spiritual reverence for each ingredient. Angela felt strongly that she had to start Sprezza in a way that was authentic and honored her origins; she wants to make her family proud. Alessandro understands.
The authenticity of Sprezza makes it an absolute gem because it has the capacity to change and then exceed American expectations. From the portion sizes to even the tiniest ingredients, Alessandro is meticulous about staying true to his roots. Going to Sprezza is the closest you can get to Italy while still being in Richmond, which is exactly why I work there. It’s like an escape, a staycation, if you will.
This endeavor is an invitation for Richmonders to experience real Italian cooking, to learn and grow during their time at Sprezza. It’s not just a restaurant, it’s a unique culinary adventure where the respect that Alessandro has for the food shines through in his preparation of it.
Both Angela and Alessandro have worked in many positions in restaurants, so they understand how restaurants work as a whole, not just in their respective roles. Sprezza is beginning like a family. Everyone is respected, considered, cared for. The art of the food and the customer’s experience take the forefront. It’s exhilarating to be a part of this passion project!
During his time in Richmond and at Sprezza, Alessandro wants to leave a little part of himself behind. His rare talent is already making an impression on those who have dined at Sprezza so far. You only have three months left to meet Alessandro himself before he goes back to Italy. If you need any further convincing now that you’ve gotten the behind-the-scenes look, keep reading for George Roberts’ review of Sprezza.
Written by Cosima Pellis
Somewhere in the middle of the advent calendar I found myself in a Lyft on the way to Sprezza, the new Italian restaurant and former pop-up settling into the old Morton’s Steakhouse. I had summoned a car to go eat because I had smoked a joint to summon my appetite. After a discussion with my driver about his PTSD and time in Afghanistan, I wished I had rolled him a joint, and I another one.
He began to beleaguer me with theories that removed most of the sympathy and any hypothetical joints I had for the man. We arrived at Sprezza, years later. I thanked my driver for his service and the ride and got out of the car with the gratefulness of an airline hostage.
I took the time outside to breathe in the air at my location at 111 Virginia Street. I was steps away from The Canal Walk Murals, The Pipeline, Shockoe proper, and most importantly, The James. The fresh rain from that day and the sunbaked heat from the cobblestones brought the smell of dirt, stone, and water to the forefront as the smell of asphalt, concrete, and traffic loomed in the back.
As I relaxed into the awareness of the moment, I became cognizant of my appetite and the mechanisms I had used to enhance it. The muscles in my body were beginning to feel loose and I had a beautiful pressure pushing in on my temples. I walked into the foyer, looking at my surroundings and taking the time to collect myself so I wouldn’t come across as some classic stoner archetype.
I turned around and walked directly into a glass wall. I hastily grabbed the adjacent door to the dining area of Sprezza. I salvaged whatever dignity I could and walked inside. The host greeted me with a smile and apology. She told me I was not the first one to do this.
I asked her if I could seat at the bar, to which she politely informed me that the bar was not ready yet. I didn’t have a reservation, so I began to be afraid that I had just played therapist to a problematic cab driver and walked into a window for nothing. Her eyes lit up as she found a seat for me, as did mine.
As I sat at a white linen table in front of a Christmas tree, I looked around at my surroundings. There was only one other table sat at the restaurant at the time I was seated, and the family of 8 was quietly murmuring amongst themselves, occasionally glancing over at the guy in flannel, crocs, red pants, and a beanie dining alone. Frank Sinatra was softly playing in the background.
The music and my paranoia from years of smoking made me feel like Al Pacino was about to take the cannoli and leave me face down in my Bolognese. I snapped back to reality as my warm and inviting waitress cleared the other plates and glasses and brought me water. She had ‘Smile’ tattooed on her hand, and her friendly demeanor assured me that if I was going to be murdered by Al Pacino, it wouldn’t be then.
There was a kind gentleman that was running service bar that came to my table and was gracious enough to go through the plethora of potions he and his team had conjured. I felt terrible when he was talking because I knew I was at an Italian restaurant, and I wanted to start with a nice aperitif, so no matter what he said I was going to have a sweet vermouth and soda with an orange peel.
With the herbaceous and floral taste of sweet vermouth and notes of orange guiding my way, I chose the Salami and Panko Prawns from the menu when my waitress floated by to take my order. She smiled and nodded her approval and dissipated into a peripheral mirage. I felt the pressure in my temples.
I had chosen the salami and panko prawns because they are easy assessments for quality and execution. Most Americans have tried both items at just about every level of quality. While I knew that the menu was from the recipe book of the owner Angela Petruzzelli’s grandfather, I also knew that she flew in a chef from Gaeta to help her execute the menu at its highest level of authenticity.
While I was waiting for my food, I could see the chef working in the kitchen. I had seen a photo of this man before. Alessandro Zamuner kind of looks like the statue of David came to life and asked for flour, eggs, and tomatoes. If you’re on a first date, make sure she’s not facing the line, or your story about your fantasy football team is going to land like an announcement in a Charlie Brown classroom.
When my appetizers arrived, I tried the panko prawns in burrata cream sauce first. The dish was simply but beautifully presented, and the prawns were cooked to a level of perfection rarely seen in Richmond. The panko breading was thin but crunchy, and the burrata cream sauce muted the shrimp and tied it to the breading.
Up next was the salami. I’m not sure how I expected it to be presented, but it was shredded paper thin and served with a side of house bread and focaccia crostini. The artisanal salami melted in my mouth as the classic funk of cure dissipated into beautifully rounded notes of rose petal and pink peppercorn. It paired with my vermouth. The focaccia crostini had the bright, garlicy punch of focaccia and crunch of crostini. The house bread was dense, but airy, and pulled apart like a romance in an Italian opera.
Somewhere in there my waitress floated by to see what else she could get for me. I got the spaghetti with octopus and the dry aged steak. She congratulated me on my choices and asked if I was having anything after my first drink. I told her I would have the Monte Cacco De Susamuniella with the steak.
The spaghetti with octopus came first. It was certainly for more advance seafood lovers, which I have recently become. The pomodoro sauce was warm and savory, with a slight sweetness that did well to stand up to the acute taste of octopus. The noodles were cooked to a mastery of al dente and the octopus was cooked to a level of perfection I have not seen in even the highest end seafood restaurants in the city.
The dry aged steak with a brandy and green peppercorn sauce was delicious, but by the time I got around to it I could only take a few bites. I only ordered the steak to see if it was worth the fifty dollars, and, being an ex-steakhouse, they probably had the equipment to get it done right. The steak is served in a very rustic way, one pound of cut meat covered with a sauce that seems to have been deglazed with a classic Italian brodo. When I took it home, I could still easily bite through a cold piece without much effort, which points to a perfectly cooked steak. Worth the money.
With the steak, I got the Monte Cacco de Susamuniella, a red wine. It had a lot of caramel apple on the nose. It had great legs, and the usual note of pomegranate you get in Italian wines waits until the very end to show up on the palate. It was the first wine listed and is indicative of a great wine menu. It also paired well with the steak.
I finished up with a cocktail. It was a scotch and port cocktail with all spice dram and crème de cassis. This drink had a full-bodied mouth feel and is a great alternative to dessert. While it starts off as a scotch heavy drink, the port begins to take the wheel as the crème de cassis works as sugar content and the all spice dram mutes the scotch. It was a truly delicious finisher for a meal from the best Italian restaurant in Richmond. Head over to Shockhoe to see for yourself; maybe Cosima will be your server!
Written by George Roberts