Local Talent: Alberto Morreale and Farmer’s Bottega
When Chef Alberto Morreale tells you about his new restaurant, his dark eyes hold light. Finally a dream has come true. From a childhood in Italy (Palermo in Sicily), he brings part of the Italian countryside, the skills learned at culinary school in Milan and his interest in world food, to his new venture—Farmer's Bottega, a farm-to-table restaurant in Mission Hills.
For Chef Morreale it's all about the art of food and blending cultures. Part of his desire to come to the United States was the fact that "the United States is the only place where I can find all kinds of food—Chinese, Argentinian, Peruvian, Mexican. Flavors can be combined, for example, Mexican infused with Italian or French."
When his path as a chef began in Palermo, Morreale was only 15. He took a summer job helping out in a kitchen. An older cook took him under his wing and taught him the basics of Sicilian cuisine (Mediterranean cuisine of fish, olive oil and Arabic foods like couscous, for example).
"From then on I wanted to learn all I could."
A major turning point was his immigration to the United States a few years later at age 22, in 1995. He arrived in San Diego to work in his cousin's restaurant, Osteria Panevino. "There I was a line cook, working on appetizers and salads." But Morreale had bigger dreams. Before long he was opening his first restaurant in the San Diego area, Il Mulino (the windmill) in Poway; and later, Cafe Milano in La Jolla and Blue Mezzogiorno in San Diego. His desire to be innovative continued.
After those ventures he says "I wanted to invent my own style, to use my talent." He worked for some time at William Sonoma as a chef and even did cooking segments on Channel 10. Opening Farmer's Bottega was an opportunity to create a new restaurant in Mission Hills where he felt the neighborhood would welcome the healthy and international cuisine. "We were a success the minute we opened," he says.
Morreale loves to create innovative dishes. His oxtail ravioli is the most popular dish at Farmer's Bottega, with wild boar risotto and black squid ink risotto not far behind. But Morreale is more than a culinary artist; he is drawn to designing décor and uses his passion and skills to discover and reclaim materials to create a unique look. This includes a recycled butcher block counter, a 40-year-old table-top found in the ocean, the insides of wine barrels to create the light fixtures and old fence material to create the bar.
Above the bar a sign reads:
"A family of artists all participating in the execution of bringing our community the best quality food we can find. We love our jobs."
Placed around the restaurant, helping to create that vintage farmhouse look is a treadle sewing machine and even a large wooden radio. He's included floral fabric on chair seats in red, purple and dark blue that reminds him of his grandmother's aprons.
While organic food is appreciated currently in the United States, Morreale says, "In those early days in Italy, everything was organic. You grew food in your backyard—zucchini, basil, eggplant, tomatoes. There was no word for farm-to-table. Now I spend a lot of time finding healthy, organic produce from local farms, as well as cage free, hormone free meats, also local if possible."
And his cooking skills are also important at home, where he often lets his 7- year-old daughter cook with him. "She loves our garden at home. She takes care of the herbs." The family raises jalapenos, zucchini, strawberries, apples, pears and avocados. "Cooking is great to do together," he says. "Eventually," he said, "I want to have a real farmhouse."
The light in his dark eyes softens. "That will be my paradise. But now, I want to bring back Italian American comfort food, with a twist." And, he adds, "Food is art!"
860 W Washington St, San Diego, CA 92103