by Giovanna Rossi and Marco Polchi
Vasco Matteucci left the Upper Tiber Valley in search of his fortune when he was just a lad. He arrived in London when the Beatles and Rolling Stones were just beginning; when the English capital was ‘swinging’: it was beautiful and creative and difficult. But, he conquered it with style and professionalism. For the last 40 years his restaurant – Vasco and Piero’s Pavillion’, (now managed by his son Paul), is a landmark on London’s food and wine scene; a great example of ‘Made in Italy’. The Mag met up with Vasco and allowed ourselves to get carried away with his story.
You left San Giustino when you were a boy, tell us about it…
Ok – though I didn’t actually get to London straight away; my journey was more roundabout than that. Initially I travelled around Italy for a bit; I went to Viareggio and then on to Rome, where I finished catering and hospitality school. From there I moved to Germany where I worked in a factory, and then spent a Summer working in a restaurant. After 6 months, I moved on to Switzerland, and then finally arrived in London. It was the start of the Sixties.
Does that mean that you never moved?
Not at all! I worked for a year outside of London, in Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare’s town, and also Rotterdam in Holland and, later on, in New York. By this time, I was so used to never stopping and this desire to be constantly on the move has never left me. In fact, even now, my wife and I travel as much as possible.
Was Stratford the last stage before you finally moved to the heart of London?
Exactly. The following year I moved at the Saint George’s Hotel in the town centre. I stayed there for about seven years, until 1970, initially working as a waiter and then as restaurant manager. It was a good little job. Then one day I was chatting to a client, Mr Hellery, an Austrian who owned a building with a cinema that he managed himself, and a restaurant. He asked if I wanted to take on the restaurant and I accepted. It was this that became the first ‘Vasco and Pietro’s Pavilion’.
Amazing. So it was just by chance?
Even more than that, it was a gamble for my ex-partner Piero and I, especially as my wife was pregnant at the time. It could have been deemed a risk, in that the premises were rather different and avant-garde for the time. One of the waiters asked if I was mad taking it on. In the beginning it was hard, but then one day a very well-known magazine, ‘Time Out’, wrote a fantastic review. Thanks to this things got better, and we stayed in that building until we moved to Poland Street in 1987, where we are to this day. We are a small restaurant that makes real food.
Could you explain why you chose Italian, and specifically Umbrian food?
One reason is that, at that time, there weren’t many Italian chefs. Most were French whilst the Italians were more likely to be waiters. In fact I was ‘born’ serving, not cooking. I liked the idea of using simple ingredients to make simple traditional dishes, and it’s what we still do today. Italian and Umbrian food was something different then; there was a type of prejudice about it. Nowadays things have changed and it is very much appreciated.
So, you have built an amazing business which has become a ‘must’ stop-off point for those passing through…
On the one hand we have our longstanding clients, including Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin (from Monthy Python – Ed.) and Ralph Fiennes, a couple of people to whom I have suggested visiting Umbria among others. On the other hand, there are a lot of youngsters who are looking to gain some work experience, including some from Città di Castello who have now gone on to open their own restaurants; people like Enzo Neri (one of the personalities featured on the front page of the first edition of ‘The Mag’- Ed.), Patrizio from ‘Dagamò’, Sara from ‘Pappa e Ciccia’, Daniele from ‘Caldese’, Davide from ‘Belvedere’ and Rodolphe from ‘Da Noi’.
How has London changed in the last 40 years?
In my opinion it has changed a lot, and for the better. It’s still changing now; it’s growing, as is the rest of England. London is constantly on the move, always active and working towards the future – the investments made over the last few years have proved this. London is a metropolis where there is something for everyone. Of course over the last few years with the economic crisis, things have changed slightly for restaurants. There’s more competition and people spend less, but we always manage to come through.
What do you think about Italy? Do you feel more English or Italian after all these years?
A cousin of mine once said that I was English even before I moved there! Joking aside, I’m happy and live well in England. There’s more respect for the rules there. But I’m also happy to come back to Italy to visit; I still have strong ties with many people who I always try to meet up with when I’m here. It’s the country where I was born and I can’t not love it. The Italian and English sides to my character are reflected in my children, both my sons are very attached to both England and Italy.