The Expat: Daniele Pinna

From: Alghero, Sardinia
Age: 33
Profession: Cook and owner of La Locanda
Education: I didn’t go to school
Just read: Confesiones de Pablo Escobar
Last film seen: American History X
Gadget: iPad

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One only needs to sit down opposite Daniele Pinna at a streetside table at his Italian restaurant on the Recoleta-Barrio Norte borders to realize how integrated the Italian cook and restaurateur is in Argentina. After marrying, and now in the processing of divorcing his Argentine wife with whom he has a daughter, it’s a non-stop barrage of chit, chat and rowdy greetings from the larger-than-life Sardinian-born cook and his neighbours, clients and, well, anyone who recognizes him.

Recalling his first trip to Argentina, Daniele says: “I came on honeymoon in 2007. I’d just got married and I had decided to take three months’ holiday with my now ex-wife. So we went all round the country, around the coast, Iguazú and the north, seeing people drink mate – it was fantastic and I had a great time but the intention wasn’t to move here at that point. But when we moved from Barcelona, where we had met, to Sardinia, we realized that she didn’t have many possibilities to get a good job there, or to do something that she wanted.

“Then our daughter was born, in Sardinia, and we decided that for everyone’s well-being, it would be better for us to move “home” – that was three and a half years ago. Sardinia is a very small place, with few opportunities. You can study for a degree but end up washing dishes, which personally I don’t mind because I never went to school so I’m happy to clean the bathrooms in my restaurant because that means I am in work. But other people who have studied for several years don’t want that. So we moved here, but then we split up – and now I have my daughter and my restaurant in Buenos Aires.”

Once the decision had been made and the young family had set up base in Buenos Aires, Daniele started to work almost immediately. “When I got here, it was like fireworks, there was a lot going on and I got a job in a kitchen, Cucina Paradiso, really quickly. It felt a bit like being a millionaire in the beginning but of course it isn’t like that – living in Buenos Aires is very particular, but I really like it. Argentines almost live without any real worry about what is going on around them. They are very particular people. I always say, this is the best country in the world, but no one believes me! So many things still need to be done here but it gives you the urge to do them.”

Admitting that he ran from home at a young age, moving to Argentina was simply another place to live in, after time in Newcastle, London and Spain among other places. “I was still a minor when I got to England! I got there then I escaped. But it’s very grey, although the people know how to party. At least in Sardinia the sun shines every day, you’re close to the sea. It’s another world. I miss the sea, the food and ingredients you can get, that are very simple. And I miss the bar, going there for a coffee or whiskey after dinner. I miss the ritual of getting up every morning and going to the local bar mid-morning for a sandwich or a beer. It’s very basic but I love it.

“As for here, it’s a very European country. I’m not sure if it’s simply that Argentines love recalling memories of Europe but they like to say ‘My father was Irish, my mother was Italian’ and they embrace you in a different way. There isn’t any racism here, although Argentines say they are with respect to other Latin Americans, but I’m either blind or I don’t see it, but there’s more racism in northern Italy than there is here.”

Despite being accustomed to living in other parts of the world, Daniele admits the move to Buenos Aires wasn’t very easy. “I came here without any money, and had to see how it would go, otherwise I would have gone back to Sardinia. I don’t know if God exists but I had the chance to work at a good Italian restaurant within a month of being here. But I still asked myself, ‘should I stay, should I go, can I grow here?’ and about 10 months later, the possibility to open my own restaurant appeared, which I took. But I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: Argentines live in a different, unworried way in comparison with us. An Argentine speeds up a process because he’s forgotten to do something but in Europe we live differently, it’s more structured.”

And amid this Argentine structure, Daniele has managed to open his own restaurant, La Locanda, on the Recoleta-Barrio Norte border. “I was very lucky as I really wasn’t looking for this area in particular. But while I was still working, I went online and saw that this space was empty. I had to get a loan to open up and it cost 40,000 euros in total. We didn’t have anything, no glasses, no cutlery, and it was very precarious. I opened in July but because people don’t come down this street at night, I was afraid I’d lose everything I’d invested. But it was the complete opposite, people came to eat, we’ve all put in so much effort and here we are.”

Pulling out a Pata Negra leg of ham and slicing off pieces to share, the proof is in the pudding that he takes his business seriously in terms of serving top-notch ingredients. “For the past two and a half years, I have been fighting to keep La Locanda going and working so that people appreciate what we are doing, which isn’t easy – some people understand, while others don’t understand why a pasta dish costs 120 pesos. I do, because I know where the products come from and that they aren’t easy to get hold of. But I’m proud of the fact that I fight to get the best, and if I lose some customers for being expensive, well, I am happy and comfortable doing what I am doing. With every mouthful of ham, I want people to enjoy it and think ‘these people put some love into this.’

“A friend, another restaurateur, told me ‘you’re going to sink because you’re too expensive and people don’t understand what you’re doing.’ But I prefer to take the risk and not sell crappy products – I wouldn’t be comfortable. I’d prefer to be considered a robber for being expensive instead of for serving up crappy products. I just couldn’t do that. And that’s the principle behind my restaurant, to offer something different from what people are used to, such as carbonara, cacio e pepe, in Buenos Aires. Those are all fantastic, emblematic Italian dishes but I’m bored of them. I cook them at home and I don’t want to make the same old pasta at my restaurant.”

Living in the same neighbourhood to be close to his business makes sense for Daniele, although he says he doesn’t have much time for anything other than work and his daughter. But when he does go out to dinner, he prefers something completely different. “I like Osaka and how they prefer dishes. I’ve never asked for a menu there, and always just let them prepare what they want for me, and they do things right, in my opinion. As for going out and partying, I don’t do that so much any more. But I love to eat and drink as if it were my only resource, and I think it is the one element that keeps me alive more than anything else. I love eating and drinking! I used to drink any old thing, but now I’ll save up to buy a really nice bottle of wine. I love trying new things and I love wine. I haven’t been to Mendoza yet, but it’s on the cards.”

As for friends, he says: “I don’t have big social life but I have some Italian friends, one from Puglia, and another Argentine – he makes homemade chorizo just with pork. My clients form a large part of my friendship, and they help me. Sometimes I’ll join them at their table if I have some spare time, or I’ll invite them if I can. I love being with them. And as for my staff, they are like an extension of my family.”

And besides his daughter, Daniele also has his uncle, Tulio, close at hand – he is currently constructing a private dining room at La Locanda. It turns out that Tulio came to visit on holiday and then fell in love with an Argentine – the rest, of course, is history.

Buenos Aires Herald, October 5, 2013
Ph: Diego Kovacic

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