Le Sirenuse Positano and Michelin Star Chef, Gennaro Russo
By: Lauren Birmingham Picitelli
“Ciccone, like Madonna, C-i-c-c-o-n-e,” says Signor Giovanni Ciccone, direttore, general manager, of Le Sirenuse in Positano.
“Your reservation is confirmed for 8 pm at La Sponda. I suggest you come earlier. You’ll be able to see the sunset, take photos, enjoy an aperitivo and meet me. I leave at 7 pm, so I look forward to meeting you.” His alluring words inspired me to sign off early. It was Good Friday and the start of the opening season.
Le Sirenuse la Sponda Restaurant
My husband and I arrive a few minutes before 7 pm –camera and note pad in hand. After a long winter in Positano, this experience will be a little vacation in the town I call home. Walking down the stairway infuses your normal mundane world with a surreal touch of luxury. Soft lighting, the scent of hundreds of lemon flowers and cascading white orchids, and climbing bougainvillea vines neatly manicured, welcome us at every turn. There’s an air of informal elegance. We make our way to the café bar and a staff of tall dark Italian waiters dressed in white wait on our every whim. They’re friendly, and as we chat, we learn most of them are from Amalfi, Positano and Praiano. Icey Prosecco is served with toasted Sicilian almonds. A bowl of green Gaeta olives and kettle chips arrive and sip and swirl. A neon sign reading Don’t Worry hangs from the ceiling. A valuable collection ofclassic oil paintings and antique furnishings are part of the eclectic mix of old and new. In one corner, a young American couple dressed in Ralph Lauren asks us how to say seafood in Italian. In another corner, an English couple celebrate their 50 th anniversary and everyone wishes them auguri. From this dream place, we look out at the vertical twilight of Positano. It moves in slow motion, as locals pull down their shades and the last boat sails into the port. Meanwhile, the waiter in the dining room lights the four hundred white tea candles in the silver chandeliers. It’s a nightly tradition. And guests of all kinds fill the dining room and take their seats at their tables. I must admit, I’m a little intimidated. However, from the first benvenuto, given by gregarious Signore Vincenzo Galani, Maitre d’Hotel to Michelin-star Chef Gennaro, the experience is casually elegant. There’s a warm down-to-earth feeling demonstrated by all including the food note explanations about products, wine and the tasting menu. Chef Gennaro walks out of the kitchen to say, “Ciao ciao.” He blushes when I say, “auguri.” I thank him for stepping away from the stove and we set an appointment for tomorrow at mezzogiorno. But tonight is all about Chef Gennaro. I’m thrilled to be here and am ready to try his Mediterranean cuisine.
Chef Gennaro Russo
We opt for the chef’s tasting menu, a plethora of local seasonal produce from sea andland. A starter, compliments of the Chef, includes a cream of zucchini and fennel custard topped with baby micro salad. The antipasto, a local white fish seared and cut into bite-size portions is garnished with herbs. Gragnano linguine with seafood follows, and the main course is San Pietro fish served in a citrus sauce with new potatoes and fennel. Dessert comes in three acts: a pre- dessert – a French raspberry mouse topped with an airy foam; a main dessert – an 85% dense chocolate cake topped with vanilla gelato; and a post-dessert – mini Neapolitans of babà al rum e cioccolato and crostata along with French strawberry macaroons. Wines flow freely from white and red to rosé, and include Per Eva from Tramonti, Valle Reale Vigneto di Popoli and Ottaviano Lambrusco. Strolling Neapolitan musicians serenade softly with classics like Santa Lucia and Torna a Surriento. At 30 years old, Chef Gennaro is hot at the helm of Le Sirenuse’s La Sponda restaurant. He has 30 supporting chefs with him in the kitchen, and everything is made in house. Born and raised in Somma Vesuviana east of Naples, the rising star chef has an extraordinary amount of experience. He tells me he is an only child, born to a father who was a butcher. “I’ve eaten so much meat growing up, I really prefer fish.”
When I ask him when he first became interested in cooking he responds, “My parents both worked, so I had to teach myself to cook. I got tired of pasta every day, so I took some cooking classes.” His sparkling brown eyes blink quickly, and he leans in closer with a smile as he speaks. “I didn’t expect such news. I had no idea. When they told me I was appointed to primo Executive Chef, it came as a total surprise. But after traveling around and living in France, I am honored that I was given this opportunity. The French, they liked me. They liked my way of cooking, and even let me create Italian additions for the menu, like pasta from Gragnano!”
For the last two years, Chef Gennaro has worked as sous chef de cuisine under former Executive Chef, Matteo Temperini, at La Sponda. His prior work experience included a stint at Don Alfonso’s. He worked three years as chef de partie in Michelin-starred Lasserre and L’Ambroise in Paris. There was also an experience with Chef Massimo Bottura at the Osteria Francescana in Modena – second in the 2015 list of the world’s best restaurants. Most recently in February, Chef Gennaro was recognized at Cucinare, a trade food fair in Pordenone, where he was awarded the FriulAdria prize for the most promising under 30 years old. “The Cordon Bleu in Paris taught me technical exactitude and the art of working as a team. But then, they don’t have our quality food, like our Vesuvio tomatoes. It’s good to be back home.”
The next morning, I am here again in the kitchen with Chef Gennaro. He shares more stories, shows me his recipes and insists that I everything – from biscotti, to spaghetti and vanilla gelato. “Promise you’ll return again for dinner.” “I promise.” “And, please make sure you tell Signor Vincenzo when you do. I want to make sure you have something extra special on your plate!”
A Note On The Sersale Family
Le Sirenuse opened in 1951,when a family of four Neapolitan brothers, the Marchesi Aldo, Paolo, Anna and Franco Sersale converted their summer house into a charming hotel overlooking the sea in Positano. That was sixty-five years ago. Today there are 58 rooms. Signor Franco, who has now passed, was an art connoisseur who contributed to the hotel’s signature style. His son Franco is now responsible. The family remains active with his wife, Carla, creating their Mare Collection, a beachwear line sold at their Emporio Sirenuse boutique. Paolo’s daughter Marina created Le Sirenuse’s fragrance and skincare line Eau d’Italie and her sister Giulia maintains the hotel’s garden greenery.