Antonio Ciocia first arrived in Sri Lanka in 2005, as Head of Security at the Italian Embassy in Colombo. The first four years he spent on the island were so good that in January 2011, a few months after leaving and trying to build a life in Cape Verde, he gave up and came back.
For two whole years, Ciocia scouted Colombo for the right location for a restaurant.
“It’s not easy, especially if you don’t know the place,” he shakes his head. “In the beginning I started to go by taxi, then tuk-tuk” he laughs, “then walking.”
His searches turned up nothing.
Then less than six months ago, a friend told him about the Sri Lanka Tennis Association. The administration was looking for someone to run a cafe on the premises, so Ciocia went and checked it out. It was dirty, but he loved the floor and the garden space. It clicked.
Things were suddenly on a roll, so as he began working on the renovation of the space, Ciocia got in touch with his brother back in Bari, Italy. He had found the house, but how does one run a restaurant without a chef? Ciocia’s brother had already heard about a young genius who made “fantastic” pizza and so he went to Kintamari and put the idea to Domenico Capodiferro.
Capodiferro, a third generation chef, was already in his element at a bustling pizzeria, but a matter of days later, he called back to say he was in. Santore got born.
In the two months since Capodiferro arrived in Sri Lanka, Ciocia’s introduced him to the people and places that made him fall in love with the island. They have become close and developed a good relationship. Ciocia believes Capodiferro will be here “forever”.
Ciocia has spent a fair amount of time rendezvousing at restaurants in Rome and understands that being a chef is a lot more organizing and managing work than it looks like. He also appreciates the huge risk the 23-year-old chef has taken, leaving behind a job in Italy during a financial crisis. Ciocia takes the responsibility seriously, not just for Capodiferro, but the whole staff that works with him, and it is unlikely the restaurant will dwindle to a mere business.
Pizza is their pride, and the Italian wood-oven takes centre-stage at Santore. Their Santore, four-cheese and spicy Diavola pizzas have so far been the biggest hits, Ciocia says. They also have a comprehensive anti-pasta, pasta and salad menu including sharing options, starting at Rs.700. The pizzas come to your table piping hot with a crispy crust burnt just right, and the pastas are wonderfully flavoured.
Their aged cheeses and preserved fruits and vegetables all come from Italy. Ciocia is worried that Mozzarella will not do well travelling such distance, so he gets it fresh from Italians who make it in Sri Lanka. And when
Capodiferro arrives to start the evening’s work, he walks in carrying bags of fresh vegetables. The young chef takes special pride in making his grandmother’s famous chocolate biscuit pudding, and the decadent cashew, chocolate Santore special as part of the South Italian desserts menu. There is obviously a lot of care and passion behind the restaurant, and this, more than the “Italianness” of it all, is what makes the food as “authentic” as it gets.
Ashok Ferry is one who is “absolutely a pizza person” as long as it’s authentic. At the jam-packed soft launch for the restaurant on October 11, he puts his thumb and forefinger together and yells “superb!” over the hubbub as he fights for his second slice of pizza. The place is buzzing.
“I am a party person. I love parties,” Ciocia smiles.
When he lived and worked in Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2009, Ciocia hosted a couple of parties ... every week.
He remembers having over 150 people at his home once, and guests queuing in the kitchen at 9p.m. on the dot. The food was out in half an hour.
At the soft launch, people are jostling to get their hands on even a slice of pizza and prettily dressed young ladies are unelegantly stretching cheese strings across tables. Ciocia walks over to crazy-busy Capodiferro at the pizza bar and starts saying “please” for a slice when another man informs him angrily, “Hey! I was here first”.
“And I’m the owner!” Ciocia laughs.
Rest assured, it is the most relaxing place. The atmosphere is nice and the colour-tones warm. The bar is more modern and cooler, which, though it might not work artistically, is a good picture of the informality of the place. You go here for good food and fun, no pressure. There are little clay lanterns bordering the garden, giving off a soft glow in the evening. The furniture is very simple, plain wooden chairs and tables with minimal decor. Inside, the floor is the old red tile that the architects wanted to remove during renovation, but Ciocia liked too much to change. The place is just cosy. It’s easy to imagine that this is an Italian home where everybody is talking at the same time and there is too much food on the table and enough laughter to fuel the oven.
And if you’re not in for a full South Italian meal, in a few weeks, Santore will be a great place for winding down on a weeknight. The rooftop is currently bare, but Ciocia has plans for a Mediterranean bar. And there’s not much sounds better than a plain old pizza party under the stars.