SORRENTO, ITALY: Il Buco Ristorante is a sensational acclaimed restaurant in the heart of Sorrento under the direction of Michelin starred Chef Peppe Aversa. Opened in 1997, it has held one Michelin star for the last 15 years, since 2004. It is easy to see why.
Located in the former wine cellar of a 15th century monastery, Il Buco brings the cuisine of Campania and Naples to life. With meticulous attention to detail, innovative cuisine, the freshest ingredients, and a love for the grand culinary traditions of Italy. Chef Aversa brings a lifetime of passion for the joy of Haute Cuisine, and it shows in every element of the restaurant.
Il Buco: An amazing location in Sorrento
Il Buco is located very near the town square of Sorrento in a gorgeously restored wine cellar. Entering thru an archway next door to the ancient church, it is striking in its setting, gorgeous in design, and impressively decorated with modernist touches and an eloquent atmosphere.
The arched cobblestone ceiling is the original, dating back over 500 years. Its surface has been preserved with a thin protective coating, and then incorporated into the classic design of the rest of the restaurant.
Upstairs is a dining room for special occasions, filled with intimate tables for couples, or special events and receptions. It has a wonderful sensibility all its own, and a much more contemporary design.
Outside, under the grand stone arch that leads to the entrance, outdoor dining is also available on terraces on both sides of the arch. The combined dining areas are expansive, but also intimate, each with their own character and ambience.
Il Buco: History and elegance
The main dining room is the essence of elegance, immaculately designed, beautifully appointed, with the unmistakable atmosphere of the merging of ancient traditions with modern culinary genius.
Dinner at Il Buco is a grand adventure exemplified by Chef Aversa’s commitment to creating amazing dishes that both exemplify the traditions of Campania and take them to the next level of culinary wonder. Uniquely special as a fine dining experience, undeniable in his genius, it is the highest expression of the gustatory arts, delivered one course at a time.
Michelin starred Chef Peppe Aversa
Chef Aversa is the essential ingredient in the evenings gastronomic journey. His personality permeates all aspects of the restaurant. Genial and warm, with a big heart, he is a presence in the dining room throughout the meal.
He greets each guest once they are seated, discusses the menu, probes for what they may want to explore, and then says simply, “ I will make a meal for you”. It is a powerful statement. It conveys the intimacy with which the restaurant is famous for.
Our table is set in an alcove designed to look like a plaster clamshell. The main room holds 14 tables in all, and as the evening progresses they are all filled with excited guests set for the meal of their lives.
Chef Peppe Aversa: The personal touch
Chef Aversa approaches our table, introducing himself, and describes his approach to cuisine. At first it seemed he was making an extra effort for a journalist. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Chef engages everyone at his restaurant in the same manner. He explains that he wants to make sure each guest is happy. The best way to gauge what is happening in his restaurant is to interact with the customers. It establishes rapport, intimacy, gives each guest a special experience, and gives the Chef essential feedback from his customers. It is an essential part of the Il Buco experience.
Il Buco: The Staff
That level of personal interaction extends to the rest of the staff. They are like famiglia, family, to each other and to the customers. Head waiter Gaetano Staiano has been at Il Buco for 19 years. His colleague Mario Vinaccia has been here 18 years. Relative newcomer Ivan Catania has been here for six years.
Together they operate like a seamless unit, creating an evening of incredible Haute Cuisine while seeing that each table has a special, intimate dining experience. They succeed magnificently. They are a true team, working together day in and day out for years. Part of a special culinary wonderland made even more so by their own personal level of commitment.
The air of anticipation is intense as the evening begins with a tall glass of Prosecco rose sparkling wine. It is followed by an amuse bouche of fried mozzarella with a dash of sardine.
Il Buco: Laying out the meal ahead
Chef Aversa discusses what we are enthralled with from the menu, and suggests that he fill in the corners with a series of dishes. He and Gaetano then proceed to produce a series of 6 courses that are equal parts amazing cuisine and experiential performance art.
Because that is what a fine dining experience should be. It is about all the elements of the evening: setting, personality, ambience, atmosphere, and most of all, the cuisine. In this remarkable setting, in a monks wine cellar 500 years old, we set forth on a Neopolitan culinary adventure of a lifetime.
Il Buco: Fresh breads and custom olive oil
Mario produces a wooden tray with a variety of fresh baked breads, and pours out Chef Aversa’s personal brand of olive oil. By personal, it’s not that he buys the olive oil from a special proprietor. That would be too easy.
Chef Averesa has a specific farm in the Sorrento region whose olive grove is near the ocean. He buys the olives from that grower each seasonal harvest, and then presses his own olive oil from that source. He presses his own olive oil. That is commitment to quality sources.
That is the level of commitment to the purity of cuisine. The olive oil sings with a light specific taste, slightly nutty, buttery, with an undertone of salt air. It is an expression of a specific terroir, like a fine wine. That is the essence of what Chef Aversa and Il Buco is all about.
Il Buco: The meal begins
Buffallo Mozzarella on a tile of oregano bread with a composition of tomatoes and vegetables in olive oil is an exceptional starter course. The Mozzarella is stunningly fresh. The tomatoes and vegetables sing with zest as the combinations of ingredients is a heavenly chorus.
A salad of fresh lettuces accentuated with crudo, or raw fish, is a wonderful appetizer. Crisp arugula and radicchio in a slight balsamic with generous slices of raw tuna and local fish is fantastic. It is the opening salvo of the feast for the senses to come.
Cream of broad beans and peas, melted pecorino cheese, croutons flavored with truffle and quail egg poche is an outstanding velloute for the ages. Essentially a lima bean and pea soup, its texture and complex structure is on another level of cuisine. Piercing the quail egg and mixing the ingredients, each delightful spoonful is a beautiful journey through the realm of the amazed.
Il Buco: Marinated Prawns and Linguine with Scorpion fish
Marinated raw prawns on a base of lentils is another extraordinary appetizer, just enough to stimulate the palette and leave the diner wanting more. The prawns are other worldly, beautifully fresh with a hint of ginger, while the lentils are a tasty counterpart that complements the prawns.
Linguine with lemon scented scorpion fish on roe and sundried tomato sauce is the first of four pasta courses we are privileged to sample. The portions for each dish are perfection, as it is a tasting menu. Just enough of each pasta and main ingredients to get a full broad example of the dish, but not so much that it will interfere with the dishes to come.
The linguine is heaven itself, beautifully done. The scorpion fish and roe become one with the pasta, emerging, as Chef Aversa reminds us, by admiring the dishes as presented, but then combining the ingredients with each forkful. It is consumed rapaciously, leaving you wanting more, but knowing the next dish is coming.
Il Buco: Gragnano with anchovies, Spaghettini with prawns
That next presentation is equally amazing. Gragnano handmade spaghetti with anchovies flavored with ricotta cheese, beetroot powder, walnuts and lemon is a watershed of complex flavors and unique combination of ingredients.
The ricotta brings a creamy texture to the dish, while the undertone of anchovy is both slightly brinish and subtly subversive. It is a beautiful pasta, exemplary of Chef Aversa’s creative imagination.
This is followed by a spaghettini with prawns in a fennel sauce that is completely different from the two previous pasta courses, but equally sumptuous and unique. The prawns are brilliantly fresh, while the fennel is both a lovely undertone to the dish, and a beautiful understated sauce that complements the dish without overpowering it.
The evening is accompanied by a simply spectacular Castel’In Villa 2011 Chianti Classicco Riserva . Gorgeously complex, fruit forward, 100” Sangiovese but with the delicacy of a Pinot Noir in the classic Chianti tradition, it opens up magnificently over the course of the evening.
Il Buco: The main courses
The fourth pasta course, and one of our two main dishes, is a tour de force of sensational Haute Cuisine. Tagliolini with Laticauda lamb on pumpkin sauce and “caciotta” cheese is an innervating taste sensation of undeniable beauty. The tagliolini is handmade, the lamb and sauce intermingling with a symphony of brilliance.
Fillet of local Amberjack with asparagus, Clams, and “puttanesca sauce” is a part of the grand finale of an amazing meal. The Amberjack is juicy and tender, beautifully cooked, with a crisp outer crust and a flaky interior. Its simplicity in preparation allows the full flavor of the fish to emerge naturally
A plate of Laticauda lamb is a stunning climax to an unforgettable evening. A gorgeously succulent lamb chop, fillet of lamb, and lamb shoulder is a tour de force of flavor and presentation. It is the perfect exclamation point to an exquisite night of sensational fine dining.
Il Buco: Sourcing the culinary journey
Lauticauda lamb is specifically sourced from a particular group of farms. Chef Aversa meticulously puts it to grand use in a several of his lamb dishes. Here it is the tender central ingredient in a meaty, succulent and beautiful exposition of the finest examples of the cuisine of Campania and Napoli.
On a menu with so many choices, it is conceivable to return to Il Buco several nights in a row and still not explore every sensational aspect of the menu. Tonight, Chef Aversa has taken us on a journey through the soul of his cuisine, and yet there are so many dishes left to try.
Il Buco: So many choices left for next time
His gnochi with prawns, handmade ravioli, fillet of sea bass, composition of octopus, raw and cooked scallops, black pork stew, Chateaubriand, and risotto with red mullet all beckon us to return again and again to discover the full range of his considerable Michelin starred talents.
Tonight it is enough to sit in wonder at what we have consumed. A lesson in gastronomy at the seat of the master. We linger over the remnants of our Chianti and banter genially with his amazing staff, as coffee and dessert signal the end of the meal.
An almond pastry is simply wonderful and a lemoncino parfait is a lovely nod to the abundance of citron in the south of Italy, and especially in Sorrento. The restaurant is filled with the captivated smiles of satisfied diners as an evening in paradise draws to a lovely close.
Il Buco’s motto: Il Piacere…it is our pleasure
On the wall behind our table is the motto of Il Buco: Il Piacere…it is our pleasure. Tonight, they have more than made good on their promise. As Chef Aversa explains, it is the full expression of all aspects of the meal that make up the dining experience.
Just as he asked us to mix the pasta dishes before eating them to properly appreciate the dish, he lends equal weight to the beauty of the cuisine, the relentless search for sourcing the freshest of ingredients, the creation of a beautiful atmosphere, and the relationship between the customer and the staff as essential to the success of the restaurant,
If the customer feels like they are part of a greater famiglia, then they have been successful. It is an inescapable part of the Il Buco experience. It is a goal they reach for and achieve, night after night.
In the kitchen are the 8 to 10 staff members who are steeped in Chef Aversa’s philosophy of cuisine, and who are essential parts of the Il Buco famiglia. Among them is his son, who is sous chef at the restaurant.
Il Buco: The legacy of Chef Peppe Aversa
That means the legacy of Il Buco is secure for another 20 years. Rarely does one find a Michelin Chef so engaged with his patrons throughout the evening like Chef Peppe Arvesa. Peppe is short for Giuseppe, a common nickname in Napoli, but at Il Buco it conveys more.
It is a symptom of what Peppe stands for. A casually elegant man who loves cuisine, loves his restaurant, and loves to create an unforgettable evening for his customers. As he says with a smile to each table at the beginning of each meal, “Now I will prepare some food for you”.
He means it. We should all be so lucky to experience what he brings to the table. At Il Buco, it means grand cuisine served in impeccable style by a family of people who truly care about what they do.
That is what it’s all about.
Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles. @JoelBerliner
All Photos by Alison Reynolds. @BigAlPeoplesPal