As Il San Peitro finishes 50 years of hospitable charm, Chic Icon visits its most iconic restaurant Zass that proffers a delectable experience of the Amalfi coastline paired with its exquisite food.
Watch a fiery sun blaze over the limpid blue Italian sea, with a glass of red in your hand, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a tourist spot that is more innately charming than the wee beach town of Positano, a tiny jewel glistening on the bosom of the ever-popular Amalfi coast. Tiny peach-hued houses perch above each other, reluctantly separated by slender pathways that trickle down to a beach gently dotted by a plethora of coloured umbrellas. Quiet churches stand tall and staid over the chatter of locals and tourists swarming the bustling markets. The sweet smell of lemon pervades the senses, ducking and weaving with the breeze.
Nestling at the heart of all this surreal charm is a restaurant so delightful, you can only imagine it in Positano: the Zass restaurant housed by the illustrious hotel Il San Pietro, an edifice bursting at the seams with Italian soul and history. Christened after a family relative who also held the esteemed position as a Mayor of Positano by the founder of the property (Carlino Cinq), the Michelin-star restaurant is proudly steered by its captain Chef Alois Vanlangenaeker.
The restaurant Zass features just over 300 square metres of space that pays homage to the historical architecture and craftmanship of the hotel since its opening half a century ago: delicious wood-baked clay slabs in the style of ‘Neapolitan cotto’ from Ogliara rise up to meet large windows magnificently framed in the traditional arches of the Positano. The ceiling is adorned by handsomely embellished chandeliers crafted by the same Florentine workmanship of appliqués in the hotel’s foyer and the walls are decorated with a collection of ancient French prints as well as two precious oil on canvas paintings from the private collection of the owner’s family.
A piano occupies the centre of the room that seats 120 people to gently serenade guests as they eat and enjoy the coastal view.
“The mis en place has remained the traditional one of the hotel, with glasses manufactured by the Venetian master Lunardon – who also created the marvelous candle holders in transparent borosilicate glass – combined with the hand-painted ceramic dishes from Vietri,” supplies Chef Vanlangenaeker who came on a holiday to Positano 18 years ago and never left.
“I was working in Saint-Tropez la pinede as an executive chef which is where I met Vito Cinque in 1992 (owner of Il San Pietro),” says Chef Vanlangenaeker who has cooked his way across several countries and with/ under some of this century’s best chefs including Roger Souvereyens, Kiyomi Mikumi, Michel Guérard to name a few. “My time in Monte Carlo was the most exciting working with Chef Ceruti… I had never worked seriously with vegetables and when I saw what Ceruti did with them, it was illuminating. I never imagined that a vegetable could become a main dish, that a carrot could become his astounding carottes fondatens.”
Chef Vanlangenaeker fell irrefutably in love with the serenity and simple honesty of Positano, two sentiments he mirrors in his cooking here at Il San Pietro for his guests along with his respect for local flavours and ingredients. “The first recipe I created for the San Pietro was a veal shank. Folks around here had never eaten it. It was truly something: 24 hours of braising at 63° (this was before the advent of the sous vide trend), checking it every three hours to make sure it was cooking perfectly. And when people tried it for the first time they were floored.”
In Zass’s green kitchen – equipped with a high-end ozone treatment system to sanitize the kitchen and a customized oven that features 90% less Co2 emissions, Chef Vanlangenaeker keeps busy between his photography and his choice creations. “My love of photography is a direct consequence of my terrible memory. When I come up with a great recipe and it turns out well, two days later I’ve already forgotten it… Clearly, I’m a bit lacking in technique, I have no professional training. I do it intuitively, but with great passion. What fascinates me is that you can portray entire worlds in a small rectangle, tell infinite stories, capture incredible subtleties of light and colour… I love it. Quite a few of my photographs now hang in the hotel, and this makes me truly happy,” he says.
A few recent favourites concocted by the chef include a hearty tagliatelle with lobster and lemon and spaghetti with tomato water and pureed Pachino tomatoes. Seafood is the soul of Positano, and Zass spoils one for choice with selections such as Tartare of Gobetti (local sweet little shrimps with ricotta) and guacomolo, and Caviar Seabass seared with fennel and truffle.
Savouring an after-dinner cocktail on the restaurant’s terrace – where breakfast and main meals are also served –is highly recommended. Gently chase a decadent bite of the coffee crème brulée with a sip of a golden 70-year-old single malt (the sommelier recommends Old Bushmill) or a flute of Dom Perignon. As the rosy rays of the sun tickle the medieval village of Praiano, and salty breezes gently lull you in a sense of comfortable surrealism, you’ll understand why Chef Vanlangenaeker could never leave…
Zass is open from 7-11am for breakfast, 1-3pm for lunch and 8-10pm for dinner. All bookings must be made well in advance.
Text by Aashmita Nayar
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