Agostino Iacobucci: Naples meets Emilia

The modulated counter tenor of Agostino Iacobucci wafts us towards the vegetable garden in the estate of Villa Zarri, a little outside Bologna. A huge white edifice looms up out of the thick shade of the trees, while another opening runs off into an area the size of a tennis court, packed with rows and rows of vegetables. All kinds of zucchini, tomatoes, and much besides.
Chef Iacobucci is originally from Campania, but has made his home in Bologna. His belief in the value of homegrown vegetables is unshakeable. “See how many types of zucchini we have”, he says, before pointing out and enumerating countless species of tomatoes. He makes me touch some coriander bushes, leaving the smell of Masala curry between my fingers, instantly transporting me to a faraway land of spices.

Agostino comes from Castellammare, near Naples. “I wasn’t much good as a young boy”, he admits. “I’m better now.” He manages to compress the whole story of his life into a few simple words: leaving Campania – geographically, if not emotionally – exploring the cuisines of half the world, before settling in Bologna. His first gig here was at the Portici, the luxury hotel whose restaurant allowed him to develop his mode of expression. Now, he works at his own home restaurant. “If you’re a restaurateur, you’re a restaurateur,” he says, irrefutably.  “You can’t do things by halves; you’re providing a service. I believe that the lunch service has to be as good as the dinner service, even if it’s maybe a slightly lighter job. I want – and I believe – that my home is ready to welcome guests. Businessmen and businesswomen, connoisseurs, and people who just want to try something new.” 

Once he felt that he’d had his fill of central city life, Agostino looked around and found another iconic figure in Bologna, Guido Fini Zarri. One of the great producers of craft Italian brandy, Zarri’s distillery lies in Bologna’s innermost outskirts, within the gorgeous grounds of a romantic old villa. Parks, gardens – it seemed the right place, and the two men reached an agreement was reached.

Agostino’s restaurant adds a new chapter to the story of freedom and dedication. Not that he is renouncing his past; on the contrary, the dishes that conquered critics and customers alike are here in all their glory. These include his famous babà, a cloud of aromatic sweetness that rounds off the sensory pilgrimage through the flavours of Campania and the sea. A classic elegance distinguishes his cooking, which is smooth yet homely and utterly satisfying, whether it be spaghetti cooked in a  bisque of algae and shellfish, or his so-called “hidden” squid; be it his smoked eel in a garden salad, or his dish where Naples and Bologna truly meet – egg sfoglia, ‘o rrau, all frothing with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Everything in this beautiful guest house, every ingredient, every point of design, bears the hallmark of the chef. Everything confirms it, everything works. This is a restaurant as an enterprise, lest anyone should forget.

Photo credits: all photos are by the author