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Umberto’s restaurant in St Benedict’s Street, Norwich is celebrating 20 years. And Umberto certainly knows his onions, after all his hometown in Italy invented the red onion, or cipolla rossa di Tropea in Italian.

PUBLISHED: 09:07 29 October 2012 | UPDATED: 09:32 29 October 2012

Umberto's Ristorante Italiano, St Benedicts Street, Norwich. Chef proprietor Umberto Iannnello. Photo: Steve Adams

Umberto's Ristorante Italiano, St Benedicts Street, Norwich. Chef proprietor Umberto Iannnello. Photo: Steve Adams

Gourmets were starved for choice before ethnic restaurants started opening in Norwich and the rest of the UK. And one such restaurateur, Umberto Iannello, was one of the first to arrive in the city with different dishes and flavours to titillate the taste buds.

Twenty years ago, he opened Umberto’s in St Benedict’s Street which has flourished and now has one of the best reputations in the city.

The city centre restaurant was his first attempt in Norwich to cook and run a business at the same time, and he has no plans to retire just yet.

That’s good news for the food lovers of the city who return to his restaurant time after time.

But Umberto still considers himself an amateur in the true sense of the word.

He said: “I’m self-taught. After 45 years of cooking, I still think of myself as an amateur rather than as a chef. I cook for pleasure more than anything else.”

He also takes part credit for introducing Norwich people to espressos.

“When I came here, nobody knew what an espresso was. People learned about it from this restaurant.”

It’s not hard for people to conjure up images of Italy while sitting in his trattoria-style restaurant.

There are photographs of his hometown, Tropea in Calabria, southern Italy, on the wall. Tropea, by the way, was also the birthplace of actor Raf Vallone, American mobster Albert Anastasia and the red onion, or cipolla rossa di Tropea in Italian.

He said: “Raf Vallone was a friend of mine and a customer at my restaurant in Tropea. I had a special relationship with him. I knew Albert Anastasia’s brother, who was a priest. He taught me English before I came to England.”

When Umberto was growing up, Calabria was desperately poor and a part of Italy where people either scraped a living from agriculture or emigrated. It’s changed a lot since then and the main employer in the area is now tourism.

Umberto was one of 11 children and his mother, Rosa, cooked two meals for 13 people every day.

It was her cooking that inspired him, but he took a long time to become a chef and even longer to run his own restaurant.

For the first 25 years of his life he stayed in Tropea and worked for five years on the land. He spent two years doing his National Service and one year in Perugia, gaining a diploma in hospitality, which he said was his passport to the UK.

He came to the UK in 1967 and first settled in Wales before moving to Somerset.

On a visit to the Norfolk coast he fell in love with the landscape and decided to move to Norwich in 1969.

When he arrived in the city, he worked as a waiter and then head waiter, including stints at the former Royal and Nelson hotels.

But he continued to visit Italy and opened his first restaurant there in 1976, which he ran for about 15 years, returning each summer.

He said: “Tropea was by then booming with tourists. In the mid 1970s I had a dream to open a restaurant in my hometown. The restaurant was an overnight success, not just in Italy. There were magazine stories about it in Germany and Austria. My name was very popular abroad.”

He still kept returning to Norwich for the winter season, and started working as a chef in the city.

“In 1992, this restaurant in St Benedict’s Street, which used to be called the Pink Rose, came up on the market and I took it on.

“Back then it was the first Italian restaurant in Norwich to be run by an Italian and where all the food, drinks, spirits and coffees were Italian. Other Italian restaurants used to combine cooking from different countries.”

He said he never imagined that 20 years later he would still be running the restaurant.

He added: “I take a personal interest in my own cooking. It’s homely, traditional cooking.

“My mother was a good cook. We were a big family and she had a lot to cook for, and she cooked two meals a day. She helped me when I opened my first restaurant in Italy and she still came in to help when she was 90.

“It was all home cooking. If you went just two miles from my hometown in Italy, the food would be different, and the name and taste would be different. It was all fresh food from the land.”

The look of the restaurant has not changed greatly in 20 years, but last year he changed the image with new tables and flooring.

His most popular dishes include lasagne with homemade pasta, handmade salsa, cannelloni, picorino cheese and fettuccine. He still goes back to Italy each year for a four-week holiday and has brothers and sisters there.

Umberto said he drives to Italy and explores the land he travels through in order to learn more about food and drink. But he always comes back to Norwich and Norfolk.

“I like Norwich and I like the coast, and I’m still here. I’m still the only authentic Italian to cook and run a completely Italian restaurant in Norwich,” he said.

Do you know someone who would make a Norwich Evening News Original? Email David Bale at david.bale2@archant.co.uk

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