The beyond-restaurant of Motelombroso: affinities & contrasts in harmony between space & matter

Content or container? Form or substance? The attention on the elements that make up a dining establishment is highly individual: the courses tasted, the ambience or furnishings, the service in the dining room, the choice of wine, the relationship between cost and gratification, the location where it is all set. These are just some of the aspects brought up.
I do not think that one factor is more important than the others, as the cohesive and flowing dialogue between the two is what counts the most. Perhaps, it may sum up many disciplines to turn the restaurant into a unique experience that does not resolve itself into the simple act of “going out to eat”.
Motelombroso, set in Milan, embodies a timely paradigm of this synergistic mechanics, without ostentation or expressive constraints.

Motelombroso Milano

Alessandra & Matteo

We are near the Navigli (on the Pavese side), but quite far from the idealized imagery of Milan. This is the first sign, determined by a geographic choice, that it’s a place of choices, existential alignments and incessant passionate motions: you can’t arrive here by chance, you have to come here.

What appears as an eclectic restaurant landing – marked by peculiar pink hues on the exterior walls and a careful attention to space design – was originally a former cellar house refurbished by the two creators and owners of the project: Alessandra Straccamore and Matteo Mazza. Consistent with the scale of the building and the driving approach of this duo (a couple in life and work), the domestic hearth has remained unchanged over time: indeed, on the upper floor of the structure, the two share their intimacy at home. This is how a labyrinth of stories that make Motelombroso unique begins as mentioned above.

Alessandra Straccamore and Matteo Mazza, owners of Motelombroso (ph. Valentina Sommariva)

Background of the project owners

The backgrounds of those who created it are the manifestos of an identity that does not conform to this sector.

Matteo, from Savoy roots, has a background in philosophy and a great career in the fashion world, first in Turin and then in Milan, working side by side with Antonio Marras. Alessandra, originally from Frosinone and with a lively Capitoline background, alternates between a law degree and jobs in the artistic and musical fields, before moving to the city of Milan in search of a personal breakthrough. If you ask both of them – we interviewed them separately – they will state without hesitation that the reason that brought them to the restaurant business has always been an innate love aimed at beauty in every aspect of life: this inevitably affects food, wine and conviviality as well.

Launched in event organizing in Milan, Alessandra starts off in the field with a brave leap into the unknown, creating an outstanding place in the urban scene such as ‘Al Cortile’ affiliated with the Food Genius Academy school. Parallel to his path in fashion, Matteo instead refined his vision and palate in the wine sector with an AIS course, with a great predisposition toward the dialectic of the Dionysian elixir that had been running in his blood since he was very young.

How it all started

Their meeting, a decade ago, occurred in a context as atypical as it was fateful: still engaged in their respective occupations, they found each other in a Chinese restaurant, discovering mutual friends in different contexts. After that evening, in the closed-door classrooms of Food Genius, there is such a strong chemistry between the two that they instantly decide to move in together and work together. They experiment with a successful format that challenges them in school spaces, but as volumes escape their conception of ‘catering’, they embark on a business of their own. What stands out in their personalities – aside from the colorful cultural depth – is the pursuing of a rigid design, but with the brave spirit of dreamers. They do not fit with static or pre-packaged models.

A place shaped by DIY design

They initially looked for something “simple”, but a series of predestined meetings leads them to the discovery of an old abandoned dwelling, where those who lived there monitored the canal locks in the navigation from Milan to Pavia. They fall in love with it at first sight: “The energies were so vivid that we couldn’t ignore them and we wanted to add our own at a time of great change”, says Alessandra.

“We tried to preserve the features of the structure as much as possible, so, in the early restoration work, frescoes from the 1800s and traces of a bunker from the World War emerged. I admit that the perception of what it was going to become was not clear at all, starting with the culinary proposal, but we focused on flowing everything we like and that belongs to us. Elements derived from passions, memories, friendships linked by beauty welcome those who would come to visit us.”

An environment full of history, art and design

Starting from scratch, Matteo recruited his father (a restorer) for a titanic workforce that left nothing to chance and embroidered a “parade” environment, especially for the human tenor. “Together with my friend Stefano Bongiorno, we planned the interior session, designing everything from scratch with the help of Piedmontese craftsmen for the practical part”, Mazza recalls. “We didn’t want to hide the history that this house already had and we focused on recovery, going back to the original colors and following the scales of the old Pantones. Stefano followed us in the selection of works and artists displayed in the different rooms with the shared vision of making food, art and design contemplate and cooperate”.

Throughout the entire perimeter of the restaurant, pieces of art by Jonathan Monk, Giulio La Ferrara, Fischli and Weiss, Koikoi, Alessio Gianardi, Raw Vision, and Studio Job alternate as in a permanent installation. “It’s all about sharing here, from the artist to the guest, without distinction”, Matteo states. “There is a very close relationship with artists here, so it seemed natural to make them an integral part of the place. There shouldn’t have been a gap between how we experience the table and how we interpret our lives beyond these walls”.

Matteo says it gently – he is far too modestly when he’s not a wine storyteller – but he conceived even the marble tables supported by brazed brass and steel or the chairs: he thought of them 5 cm lower than the ordinary seats to ensure armchair comfort without the risk to sink under the mise en place. Wine glasses, serving platters, pottery and water carafes follow the same artisanal thoughtfulness. The design at Motelombroso is breathed into every inch, but it is so functional and adherent to the overall place that it doesn’t need further explanation.

The outdoor space taken care of in every detail

As soon as you pass the slope that distances the restaurant from the road, you are gently pulled into an arboreal frame intended as a green area to enjoy and rest: a garden with fruit trees and a bamboo grove with a Japanese touch, where guests can get lost and then find themselves over a meal or during the cross-cultural events (art, music, literature) that the couple never fails to organize. In warm weather, the outdoor seating area punctuates the beats of the services, amid solid stones as chairs (imported from quarries in Piedmont) and the purple hues (red, yellow, orange) of the “sun” specially modeled by Mandalaki Design Studio.

Motelombroso bar room

The bar room near the entrance, on the other hand – which emulates a motel lobby – serves as a chameleon-like antechamber to get lost in the owners’ spirit. A marble bar with a floating set-up dominates the room, which turns into a catwalk for cocktails or a music console at the end of the night (the soundtrack a very serious matter for the two). Designed with Stefano Bongiorno, there is an 8-meter angular suspended sofa, facing a sculpture in Subasio and Carrara stone, which can be modulated both as a seat and as a tabletop. Lamp-sculptures of organic shape circumscribe the geometry of the room by exploiting raw and impactful materials, while behind the bar counter a strategic glass window reflects what takes happens in this confidential area.

This is followed by the “GreenHouse” (glass and steel greenhouse with a view of the outdoor garden): that is the pulsating core where the food and wine take shape. The fifteen marble tables, deliberately asymmetrical and with no equipment, serve as a stage for lunch or dinner, together with iron and brass elements or the diagram of tailored neon that produce subdued lighting, that is ideal for the evening hours.

Upstairs, however, there is a private room with bottles selected from Matteo’s cellar. A private cavern, outside of space and time that, by reservation, where you can dine along an oval stone and marble table, composed of three slabs of peach blossom, breccia and slate.

The idea behind the motel concept

Guarded by a glass sphere hanging from the ceiling, we move further into the idea of a motel: this is the neon “love” sign posted on the walls (by artist Miriam Gili) with the flashing M intermittently revealing the provocative claim “love by the hour”. If you are wondering why the name was placed on the sign, the answer lies in the very identity of the place. “We really wanted to turn these spaces into a motel”, Alessandra recalls.

“We liked the concept of hospitality in a specific time frame, which tied in with escapes conveyed by intense, carnal pleasures. The word ‘shady’ came along in an elective key because we love the neutral sound it produces. Those letters in a row of a compound noun are used as a noun. This is a way to tell  ourselves and those who visit us that we all have the right to have a holistic shelter, even for a few hours, where we can indulge in pleasure in all its manifestations”.

The cornerstones of the project

At this point, we leap back to the initial question: what is the edible content in this kaleidoscopic container? This is a sensitive topic for the couple, who have tested various gastronomic meals since the opening with only three fixed points: flawless raw material (from small, artisan-style and truly sustainable goods), living wines as the fruit of vignerons (good to drink before bearing the general definition of ‘natural’), and celebration of otium (a recreational leisure time for your intellect and body).

“Motelombroso is an ongoing, first and foremost with ourselves, challenge to ensure the best with our means”

“In the early days you could pinch ourselves cooking meat over an open fire, because we didn’t have a kitchen and were looking for something to fill this gap”, Alessandra recalls. “The offerings were never linked by the aesthetics of this space, but the food adapted as a consequence of who we are, what we like to eat and, at the same time, share with guests as well. We had binaries to follow such as the value of the products to be treated and the desire not to come up with a proposal that would bore us.

Choosing to visit us should be a well-rounded sensory experience, connected to the essence of the restaurant, but free of form conditions. I could serve even a large hamburger on these tables if it was our spirit, and it wouldn’t clash with the environment we created. It is an ongoing, first and foremost with ourselves, challenge to ensure the best with our means. I entered into the room with no experience, with a certain level of service that caused me anxiety at first. I may never know if I am really able, but I devote all myself to make it work“.

This is a unique case that defies the rules of assonance and traces affinities even in possible contrasts, between what we eat and the dimension we are in, heroically walking along the straight line of authenticity.

“We become guardians of the moments that the costumers spends with us”

“Motelombroso is first and foremost a place”, says Matteo. “A place intended to welcome people who arrive with different shades of feelings. The primary one is naturally related to food, because when we smile and welcome people we do so with the purpose of getting them to eat. However, there is a powerful subtext related to otium in the noblest meaning. Those who come here are choosing us, they do not fall for it by chance. We thus become guardians of the moments that the costumers spends with us. This stay changes and expands according to the desires of each individual.”

“Anyone who cooks here must be adherent to this philosophy. It does not mean erasing one’s personality, but rather merging it with ours for a common purpose. It takes a lot more than technique to work here and luckily we have found in Nicola what we were looking for. We found each other first on the human side than on the culinary side, because he is a person who listens, absorbs and contributes without going out of step. Discuss the genesis of each dish starting from the basics, the ingredient and the result we want to achieve. We evolve together without forgetting who we are”.

Otium, wine & cooking of Nicola Bonora

Here is the third element in this close-knit duo, namely Nicola Bonora: a ’90s-class chef of Sardinian origins (Torre Grande, in the area of Oristano), tempered by the rural gestures of his land and experiences steeped in contamination (Gordon Ramsay at Fort-Village, Enrico Bartolini and the Chinese-fusion restaurant Serica in Milan). Nicola is a young man who acts before speaking, rhyming flavors with a lexicon worthy of a veteran rapper. In his kitchen, the rushing flows of his beloved sea, the blunt warmth of the hinterland, and the bittersweet notes of an Eastern influence coexist ad reaches almost magical levels in his every preparation.

Nicola Bonora chef
Nicola Bonora, chef at Motelombroso

“What is created with Ale and Matteo is almost a return to the origins, but we are moving forward”, Bonora says. “I never denied the gastronomic heritage of Sardinia, but my attachment to ethnic cuisine makes me put it on the back burner. I’m bringing it back in a new guise, mainly because of the maniacal attention paid to the raw materials. A constant creative process, conceptual and material, leads us to restore dignity to disused recipes or customs. I place taste and the highest expression of food, exploited to the core, above any visual component or slave to technicalities. There is still so much to learn, but it is really inspiring to build it with people like that”.

What he says he does, pouring it onto the plate. Just rely on the larger tasting menu, created not surprisingly by the three “Theorem”. If we want a parallelism, it fits legitimately between the interior design and menu development adopted by Motelombroso, because it accompanies a climax of polarizing suggestions on multiple levels: aesthetic, tactile, emotional, artistic and bluntly enjoyable.

A tasting menu

From the start of the “Cold Cycle” in three steps – resetting the palate by dribbling pleonastic amuse bouche – where the “Broccoli” at 360 (creamed with pistachios, crispy stalks in acetic preservation, cous cous of the taller florets and granita) instantly provides a thunderbolt of vegetable textures with ballistic expertise.

The “tartare of giant sheep from Bergamo, sea anemones, black sesame and oyster leaf” is an exemplary phrasing of wild saltiness and pastoral breezes. The sheep turns to beef at the bite and is escorted to graze blissfully along the shoreline.

Fish dishes

The chef’s memories of his Cabras grilled catch translate into a “terrine of dry-aged mullet with seaweed, fermented daikon, green beans, and brine broth” with ancestral gasps: chewing and depths of the Rising Sun clinging to the rituals of the island Gulf fishermen.
The “stew of snails and cuttlefish (with its blackness), bitter endive and herb oil” evokes sumptuous carnivorous salivation, swept up in a hypnotic brackish undergrowth that paves the way for the next taste.

Grilled swordfish (a fish variety bestowed everywhere) conquers a regal iodine trim in a sauce of sun-dried tomatoes, capers, bergamot. “There’s even some parsley put in at the end, cut as badly as my mom would”, Nicola adds as we taste this addictive sauce. Her reasoned instinct is a crucial piece in the what she cooks, trying to extract beauty even from imperfection.

See the riot of callouses and exotic counterpoints in the “Pork Ears Plated with Lipsticks and Yellow Curry“, in the flicker of trying new products freshly stowed in the pantry, or the “Filindeu with grilled eel, fennel and sheep broth” detonating intensities in the consommé, with crisp Japanese sharpness, that elevate an archaic pasta format on elusive papillary trajectories (the macerated Sauvignon from the Côtes Catalanes ringed by Matteo crystallizes an ecstatic moment).

The grand finale

We fly into the finale with two poignant passages: the “bollito alla brace” of diaphragm with wild mustard combines in an ingenious key, to say the least, two antipodean cooking methods, preserving their respective timbres with class, the “spaghettone al pecorino e limone” provides such a mighty blaze in just three ingredients (thanks to the extraordinary 36-month-old Fiore Sardo from a legendary 70-year-old cheesemaker) that no technical explanation is required. One must come here to try it. This is an exercise so mature, dynamic and complex in its apparent visual minimalism, that it seals the excellence achieved by Motelombroso’s trio of souls it is precisely the signature-dish that brought them together in this gastronomic adventure.

The “orange blossom chocolate cake,” flecked with the saltiness of roe caramel and mackerel garum, closes the food verse with flair and provocation, while opening Matteo’s cellar for an in-depth look at his winemaking thinking (he also tells an exhilarating wine-pairing).

Nicola Bonora piatti
Orange blossom chocolate cake

The importance of choosing the right wine

You will struggle to convince him of his talent, but the way he reads, narrates and pairs the wine in a meal is execeptional.

“I started with the great classics, that was a must for me”, Mazza explains. “From the never-ending love for French landscapace and the bottles of my Piedmont. Approaching the so-called natural, the new that is now everything, was a cultural need, as well as a springboard to broaden my palate and better codify what I want to serve at the tables of our restaurant. My conclusion is that a wine is exceptional when it is made by exceptional people. When it is good by definition, the wine lives on and sticks in the memory regardless of the use of rigid appellations. I select my bottles with this register, looking for wines that hold a soul as a dish that can move the taster’s emotional chords”. 

I think more and more that wine realities outside the emblazoned areas should also be sought, not as an obligation, but out of the need for a constant sensory training. I also take risks when structuring the pairing with the current menu, perhaps moving between an Andalusian Moscatel, a Vermentino from the Côtes-du-Rhône and an atypical orange from the Azores after dessert. Placing in between also a Barbera d’Alba from Roddolo or a Sass Russ from Podere di Valloni because of the connection I have with these producers.”

Milano Motel
Motel room

“Choosing wine is like working on people’s psychology to make them feel good and reaching new levels of perception”

I am a drinker before a sommelier and I believe that wine should make a client’s dinner special, so I don’t follow patterns except to pour what I really like to drink. I distance myself from overpriced wines or plastered pairings because I prefer the imperfection of a bottle opened on the spot with the customer, following the vibrations he sends back to me with the dish he has just served.”

Interpreting a table’s cravings to the rhythm of the kitchen and filtering them through my own taste is essential. May it be an academic sequence of only three glasses, or an extraordinary red from the Jura juxtaposed with a fish course. I raise the level of knowledge of the eaters, I play and try to entertain while having fun. This also originates unexpected discoveries. In my view, choosing wine is like working on people’s psychology to make them feel good and reaching new levels of perception. After all, that’s what we’ve been trying to do in our place since the beginning and what we will never stop doing”.

Opening image: Motelombroso bar room


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