Wassim Ben Abderrazak knew he had hired the perfect executive chef for his Italian restaurant when he walked in on him talking to the food.
Abderrazak, manager and co-owner of newly opened Nonna Zanon, recalled the incident clearly:
“One of his first few days, Franco (Della Toffola) was in the kitchen alone and I could hear him talking. Very calmly. I was wondering who on earth he was talking to.
I opened the kitchen door and he was having a conversation with some fresh produce. He wasn’t bothered at all. He claims that all food has a soul.”
Speaking to Doha News as Qatar marks Italian Cuisine Week, Abderrazak added, “Sounds slightly crazy, but it works for us. From that moment, I knew that our approach would work. (Toffola) cares deeply about cooking and it shows.”
Since it opened last year, the West Bay restaurant has attracted a small but loyal band of regulars.
It’s the kind of place where staff know exactly what a customer will order as soon as he or she walks in. And often times, Toffola will come out of the kitchen while people are eating to chat with them and catch up.
Nonna Zanon has been a work in progress for five years.
In 2011, Abderrazak was approached by a Qatari friend who wanted to open an Italian restaurant in Doha that would set itself apart through innovation.
The manager seemed like the perfect fit. Firstly, he already knew Italian from growing up in Tunisia, which is only some 80km from the European country.
Secondly, he has a degree in business administration as well as certification from the Switzerland-based École hôtelière de Lausanne, one of the world’s top hospitality schools.
And finally, Abderrazak is as crazy about food as his executive chef.
He and Toffola source most of the restaurant’s ingredients locally, and once even drove some 100km to northern Qatar to find the perfect fresh octopus for grilling.
“We refuse to be boring,” he told Doha News. “We are ever-changing. We have a printed menu but we also have a daily menu and we seek the freshest, best-quality products in our creations.
And if that means driving a few hours to find that special ingredient, so be it.”
For Toffola, using locally sourced food comes naturally. He grew up on a farm in Italy and began cooking with his mother when he was a small child.
“One of my first memories is making gnocchi with my mother,” he told Doha News.
“I was barely four or 5. I remember carefully learning the process and then excitedly eating the fresh gnocchi dough. The best bit was placing the dough on the top of our wooden stove until it was crispy. It made the perfect snack.”
Toffola began pursuing his dream of becoming a chef as a teenager, and earned his “white jacket” at the age of 18 years old.
Reflecting on his experiences as an executive chef, he said:
“Anyone can be a boss. It is most difficult, however, to be a good leader. My mother and my mentor, Chef Gigi, both taught me how important it is to lead a team and not just be a boss. I carry this advice with me today and I follow their example.”
Together, Toffola and Abderrazak work daily to come up with classic Italian dishes with a “creative twist.”
For example, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes is pumpkin risotto with gorgonzola cheese and green apple, for QR65.
Nonna Zanon also sells gnocchi, but adds beetroot to the classic potato dish, and serves it with a minced meat sauce.
Healthier dishes include a QR40 kale salad with quinoa, orange slices, pomegranate and toasted nuts.
And for children, the Margherita pizzas are particularly popular, and cost QR45 each.
For the first time this year, Qatar is marking Italian Cuisine Week, in collaboration with Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
As part of the event, Italian food is being featured at Lulu Hypermarkets.
Special menus are also being offered at these five Italian restaurants in Qatar through Nov. 27: Nonna Zanon, Mercato Antico, La Veranda, Antica Pesa and Italia Mia.