Helsinkians can rest easy – everything they’ve ever needed now in one place.
“ONE DAY, it was the 12 of March, Paolo [Morcucci] came to my place,” begins Stefano Metta. It was a Friday and the two of them were living in Mazzano Romano, a small medieval town close to Rome. “I’m the owner of some restaurants and bars, and he told me why don’t we open something in Finland? I said to Paolo, why not.”
Two weeks later they were on a plane to Finland, and would soon fall in love with Helsinki. Simple as that.
I sit down with Metta, a Sicilian Swiss restaurant owner, Morcucci, a musician with a Finnish wife, and Flavio Avignonesi delle Lucille, who has been working in hotel management in London, and was the third addition to the team. There are two other owners who aren’t present at the interview that day, Pasi Pyhanen and Kim Lerche, the latter helping with the music aspect. The mélange of experience and professional history is brought together by friendship, they tell me. What connects them, Metta says, is an artistic soul and wanting to live well; “we are humanists.”
Metta and Morcucci didn’t leave the idyllic medieval town of Mazzano; they left Italy.
“At the moment it’s not the best place to live. The economy is not brilliant, and we don’t like the situation with people always complaining,” says Morcucci. They wanted to find a country where they could stay and live quietly. The solution was the serene streets of Helsinki.
“Paolo, your idea was perfect. It’s not a hectic city like London. It’s a man-sized city that’s what I call Helsinki. It’s not that big, not that small. It’s the perfect size,” adds Avignonesi delle Lucille.
Following Morcucci’s lead, the quintet established what they call the only truly Italian restaurant in Helsinki. Being a musician, Morcucci added a jazzy element to their restaurant with the help of Jyrki Kangas, a well known Finnish jazz musician who has, for example, run the annual Pori Jazz festival. Their restaurant sports a small stage where they host live performances three times a week.
They named the restaurant Pjazza – a tribute to both jazz and the atmospheric square Italians call the piazza.
Italians in Helsinki
I ask the Italians how their restaurant differs from other Italian restaurants in Helsinki. The look they share is indicative of mutual agreement on no restaurant in particular having impressed them.
“To be honest, most of the Italian restaurants are not really Italian. You can eat well, but you can’t eat Italian well,” explains Metta.
“A plate that is simple you complicate it because you add some local taste. That’s what we don’t want.”
Avignonesi delle Lucille says that they wanted to establish a typical, traditional Italian restaurant – something they claim doesn’t exist in Helsinki.
From the flour to the kitchen staff, they tell me that their restaurant is authentic Italian. The chefs all come from a specific school in Italy, called the API or Italian Pizza Association.
“Most of all, we are Italians and we conduct it in an Italian way,” says Metta. “The ambiance is Italian.”
What they want to bring Helsinkians is an easy atmosphere and locale where one can enjoy a glass of wine, jazz, and of course true Italian cuisine. They serve a modern pizza that’s easier to digest. The flour is left to rise, or ‘levitate’ for at least 72 hours. If the dough has risen for that long, it won’t continue to rise in the customer’s stomach. Given that this is Finland, naturally they also have a gluten free pizza.
Food, jazz and atmosphere
For a starter I tried the burrata cheese with truffle and parma ham, the size of which would have sufficed as a main. I tasted two mains: fettuccine con tartufo nero, or pasta with black truffle, and the pizza bresaola with bresaola, rocket, parmesan and olive oil. Although the pasta was good, I have never tasted a pizza as good as this. The food was accompanied with a glass of Sicilian Donnafugata’s Mille e una Notte, its fullness and berry flavours giving a wonderful contrast to the saltiness of the ham and parmesan which played a leading role in the bresaola.
The restaurant has a surprisingly large number of square metres. It consists of a large main room, complete with bar and small stage, and three smaller areas, one of which also has a bar. Each has been designed with a pleasant simplicity, with an easy warmth despite its spaciousness and high ceilings. The addition of live jazz was also wonderful, bringing the restaurant an extra mile ahead.
“The restaurant is a machine which is warming up”, says Avignonesi delle Lucille. Yet the modest owners appear to be doing well already. A lounge area is being developed in the foyer, and the space was buzzing on a live jazz Tuesday night. With already such impressive results, this is certainly a place to keep in mind for when it kicks into top gear.
Text and images Alicia Jensen