The sun makes a rare breakthrough as I wander up Seymour Street and into Bernardi’s, one of Marylebone’s recent culinary hotspots. It has only been open for 18 months, but in that time the restaurant has garnered glowing reviews from critics and the local community.
I settle into a window-side booth, joined by founders Gabriel and Marcello Bernardi and head chef Sabrina Gidda. The sun streams into the room briefly, before being obscured by clouds. It’s 3pm, and customers are enjoying coffee while working on laptops; some are nibbling on pizzettas. While dinner service takes on a buzzy restaurant vibe, the Bernardi’s team want to make the day-to-day atmosphere here very relaxed.
“I’m really keen on making the restaurant accessible as kind of a drop in,” says the infectiously irreverent Marcello. “We want it to be a place where you can use your laptop, hang out.” He says that they plan to remodel the front of the restaurant to bring a lounge feel to the space. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner are our bread and butter, but the eternal challenge for any restaurant is being approachable at different times of the day.”
Sabrina agrees. “Bernardi’s is sexy enough to come here for an occasion; but similarly, you can come in with your trainers and a t-shirt.” A big influence on Bernardi’s are Italian restaurants that evoke elegance while remaining egalitarian. “Rome has these beautiful restaurants, but somehow it feels like you can just pop in. It’s Italian casual sophistication.”
Sabrina is integral to the offering at Bernardi’s. An untrained chef, her dishes exemplify the Italian ethos of letting ingredients speak for themselves. “We take the best of the Italian and British seasons, put them together, and cook in a really free way,” she says, adding: “When you have three things like single estate extra virgin olive oil, Sicilian tomatoes and burrata from Puglia, you don’t need anything else.” From the get-go, the team eschewed “foams, dots, purees and flowers”; and no dish is served on anything other than a beautiful plate. “It’s not going to come to you on a slate or in a hat or in a shoe,” she says with a wry smile.
Despite an upbringing that celebrated food, as well as her “inherent greed”, Sabrina didn’t go straight into cooking. With an interest in women’s fashion, she enrolled on a year-long course in womenswear fashion design, before studying a degree in fashion PR and marketing. While her British Asian family were supportive of a fashion career, Sabrina says they didn’t quite understand the appeal of standing up in a kitchen for 18 hours a day. “When that epiphany came to me, I realised very quickly – as did my family – that cooking was the thing that I was supposed to be doing.”
Beginning her journey in gastropubs, Sabrina later worked for corporate clients, including Freshfields law firm in the City, where she ran three kitchens overseeing 14 chefs. “Being in the corporate environment was great – but it wasn’t accessible to your family or friends, or to anyone, really. If you can’t share your food with anyone, then that’s a bit limiting.” It was while working in corporate hospitality that the budding chef entered the prestigious Roux Scholarship, becoming a finalist twice – the only woman to do so in the two years she entered. She says that the recognition helped validate her career change. “It was an incredible experience,” she says, clearly proud of her achievement. “I learnt a lot about myself as a chef. That competition is held in very high esteem, so it was lovely.”
Then, through an acquaintance, she was introduced to the Bernardi brothers. Sabrina clicked with Gabriel and Marcello – and she immediately saw potential in the site. “I remember the first time they showed me the restaurant; when I walked through the door, there was just a feeling about it, that this was the kind of project I wanted to be involved with.” Marcello agrees. “Gabriel and I developed a simple seasonal Italian menu that had a little bit of an Antipodean edge to it to begin with – a bit of playfulness, not too traditional. Sabrina absolutely got it, instantly. She nailed it.”
While the dishes at Bernardi’s are rooted in Italian tradition, there is certainly an Australian slant thanks to the brothers’ influence, namely in the reverence for the ingredient. Their upbringing in Melbourne saw Gabriel and Marcello become immersed in food from a young age. “Cooking was a big part of growing up,” says Gabriel. “Our parents were very inventive and they loved Italian food. We had something different every night of the week.”
“We were lucky enough to have a house in south western Australia, where we would go in the summer,” says Marcello. “There’s a real appreciation for growing and eating food – and we did it in a typical Italian style: growing our own olives, making olive oil – not really what a normal Australian kid does!”
Though food and drink continued to be a passion for the brothers, they cut their teeth in other industries before entering the restaurant business. Gabriel owns the interior design company Coote & Bernardi, while Marcello comes from an advertising background. Both are employing their skills to create a well-rounded business model for Bernardi’s. “Historically, we’ve used both of our skills to put together our restaurants. My focus is very much on the marketing, creative angle; Gabriel is on the interior side of things.”
Bernardi’s is not their first restaurant project. It was when they acquired the site of what would be The Thomas Cubitt in Belgravia that they realised they could unite their aesthetics-driven careers with their love of food. They helped to create a successful pub-restaurant – a process which lit a fire under the budding restaurateur duo. “It was very much learning as we go for a lot of it – but we had the skill set to back up the running of it.” After a series of openings that included The Pantechnicon Rooms and The Orange, both in Belgravia, Gabriel and Marcello reassessed. “For Bernardi’s, we had to look at the area, what we were going to do and what was going to resonate with people. We’d always wanted to do Italian food, but in the pubs, British was a natural fit.”
18 months on, and Bernardi’s’ dishes are hailed as some of the best Italian plates in London. “We’re building a collection of dishes that we know are absolute mega hits, which is really nice,” says Sabrina proudly. These include her rabbit ragu with tarragon gnocchi and pancetta pangrattato; ricotta gnudi (“now we keep the component part and rotate the garnish, because people absolutely love them”); and the pizzettas, which incorporate expertly chosen and unusual ingredients such as confit leek with Taleggio and Italian celery.
With so little time under their belt, it’s still early days for the team; but that doesn’t stop them from being ambitious, showing a desire to stand the test of time. “In the future, I hope Bernardi’s is an institution – the place people always come to as a default,” says Gabriel. As the sunlight breaks across the street and floods into the restaurant, you can picture it.
62 Seymour Street