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Marco Polo, the return of Diego Pani to Ventimiglia

Vkin (Im), a border town, is full of contrasts: the charming medieval village, perched on a hill, overlooks the new shell-shaped port, inaugurated last July by Alberto, Prince of Montecarlo, and the new part, built over the Seventies in a messy way. The city of Ventimiglia is divided into two parts by the Roja Riverwhich flows into the Ligurian Sea and it is the second largest center in Liguria after Genoa. For those wishing to visit the old part, you can use the elevator, recently inaugurated; we recommend it, because you can discover real open-air treasures, churches with “carrugi” and breathtaking views, such as that of Balzi Rossi. The beauty of Upper Ventimiglia has been rediscovered, even by foreigners, so the real estate market in this region is growing strongly. Ventimiglia is also famous for the Hanbury Botanical Gardens created by Sir Thomas Hanbury in 1867, also used as a film set. Right at the water’s edge we find the elegant wooden construction of the Marco Polo. Here everything is polished from the beach to the garden through the interior of the room, where blue, wood, black and white photographs and many marine symbols predominate.

Marco Polo interiors

The history of Marco Polo in Ventimiglia

it goes back to 1960 when Orestes Pani built a house on stilts a few meters from the sea. Thus was born the Marco Polo, initially a bar with a bathhouse he sees at the stove Ines Maria Biancheridestined to go down in history as “grandma maria”And as the creator and first keeper of the secret of the risotto marinara recipe. In just over a decade, the Marco Polo has become a real tourist attraction. In 1974, with the death of Oreste Pani, his son Marco arrives to take care of the room: this is when the Marco Polo actually turns into a restaurant. After the meeting between Marco and Ivana Belvederethe two begin to travel and on returning from a trip to Kenya, Marco Pani decides to build a garden on the beach with a large grill in the center to roast fresh fish.

The overseas experiences don’t stop there though, the second generation of the Pani family understands that the restaurant world is changing and decides it’s time to take the 1960 Marco Polo to the next level. . In 1986, Marco and Ivana left for France, working in the kitchens of Bistro d’Hubert ** in Paris and Moulin de Mougin, three stars of Roger Vergé. The following year the young cook and his pastry chef companion arrive via Bonvesin de la Riva from Gualtiero Marchesito then land along the chef Ezio Santin, just before going home. At the end of the 1980s, the cuisine, the service and the experience offered by Marco Polo had no equal: the restaurant under the direction of Marco Pani enjoyed satisfaction and rewards, thanks also to Philippe Bergouniouxa French chef of immeasurable talent, mentor to Marco first and then to Diego.

Philippe had a decisive influence on the professional life of Diego who, after finishing high school, found himself at a crossroads, uncertain about the future. After a confrontation, he convinces him to follow him for three months in his restaurant in Patagonia: it will be a taste of what’s next. Diego continues his career alongside names like Vittorio Beltramelli, Joël Robuchon and Guy Savoy. Impossible not to mention the three years spent in the kitchen of the Louis XV in Montecarlo with Alain Ducasse, his mentor and teacher, to whom Diego owes and gave a lot. These are experiences that made Diego change once and for all and become the ambassador of a border cuisine, that between France and Italy, but reinterpreting them with his heart. In 2018 Diego inherits the management of the restaurant, which since then has continued with the valuable help of her sister Marina.

Marina and Diego Pani Marco Polo, the return of Diego Pani to Ventimiglia

Marina and Diego Pani

Diego Pani, cross-border cook

When Diego starts talking about his business, the deep connection to his family immediately emerges. “My dad tried to talk me out of it, so he said, he didn’t want me to sacrifice myself, like he didbut the love of cooking took over.” He has no regrets, on the contrary he takes family recipes, dissects them and modernizes them. He favors traditional cooking, such as the old presses that were used to make ducks, his grandmother’s cast iron fryer from the 1960s, but no powders or cooking in a bain-marie with a roner. At Marco Polo, we feel a serene atmosphere, because “the well-being of employees is fundamental, they must not exceed eight hours of work; I try to make them autonomous and empower them, as in the case of Mattia Cavalli, sommelier, who personally manages the domain, with 560 labels. She knows him in Menton by chance, so immediately after Mattia decides to move to Ventimiglia to give a change to the wine list of the Marco Polo 1960. 560. The Wine List had been launched by Marco Pani and Daniel Bartement, then chased by Diego, helped by his right arm and the sommelier Mattia. More than 50 Champagnes, including highly sought-after bottles and unmissable cuvées, an attentive eye turned towards Piedmont and Burgundy, without forgetting Rossese di Dolceacqua, a fundamental grape variety for all Ligurians and in which they strongly believe. With research work, Mattia associates the wines present with a selection of natural wines and small producers from the region and beyond. “All available employees and interns have a room, just in the apartment above the Trattoria that my mother runs, in the heart of Ventimiglia, he continues, in rotation I offer two employees at a time the possibility of dine out, so they can learn the psychology of the customer.” Interns? “Sometimes they come from local hotel establishments, then inexplicably later they go to other areas. It should be the other way around, Liguria is a region with a tourist vocation, I don’t understand why they move them, instead of staying with us”.

Diego respects the past, but offers a menu « Vintage-contemporary”With traditional dishes, sometimes kept unchanged over time, such as seafood risottoother times re-adapted in a contemporary style like the “lukewarm trophies”, Not seaweed cold. After the recent death of his father, he does not want to make any revolutionary changes to the place, as he not only wants to retain the old loyal clientele, but also renew it. “Pink she has been taking care of fresh pasta for 35 years, continues Diego, she is a person of the house, she has always taken care of me, since they took me to the restaurant when I was a child . My mother takes care of the Trattoria dei Pani, located just opposite the covered market of Ventimiglia, where you can taste traditional dishes, such as brandacujun or borage ravioli. Everything at an affordable price “. With the entry of the sister Marina in the family business, the room service has reached a high level, never intrusive, discreet, but attentive. “My brother takes care of purchases and orders, Diego continues, so I can have the clarity I need to take care of the kitchen and my projects. I cherished my previous experiences, for example I learned from Ducasse the parsimony of ingredients and the hierarchy: it is essential to have a joker in the brigade, in order to include him in the crucial moments”.

Table laid at Marco Polo Marco Polo, Diego Pani's return to Ventimiglia

Table laid at Marco Polo

The Marco Polo map

Those lucky enough to have lunch at Marco Polo will find a few recipes on the menu dedicated to “Family Secrets”, these recipes handed down for three generations and that Diego would not imagine modifying or removing from the menu. There “Fricassee lobster with fresh tagliolini and basil, a dish first prepared in 1988 by Diego’s father: a secret ingredient makes the sauce special. Other irreplaceable dishes: there “Octopus risotto 1960 And with herbs prepared for the first time by grandmother Maria, inventor and holder of the true secret of the recipe: a pesto made from ten different herbs, picked personally. Grandma Maria revealed the recipe to dad Marco before leaving, who did the same with Diego in 2021. More »Sea bream and Foie Gras, bouillabaisse sauce”, a Marseille preparation based on fish and Genoese pesto: a recipe that tells the story of the cuisine of Ventimiglia, its sea and its mountains. In the evening, customers have the choice between three menus at different prices. It is not surprising to find many foreigners and French customers among the customers, because they find at the Marco Polo a refined and characterful cuisine. We particularly appreciated the use of local herbs often employed in creations of contrasting temperatures and textures. Without forgetting certain dishes such as « False mussels with prawns and eucalyptus» : A real surprise, identical to the natural ones: shiny, black, perfect, made with a lot of know-how, made from spelled flour, good for snacking like breadsticks. Crunchy, pleasant in the mouth the “Cutlet of anchovies, covered with a toasted hazelnut breadcrumb; we found the sour taste interesting in the “Stuffed shallot with almond cream”. A small flaw: the bread did not seem to be up to standard for a restaurant of this level, but luckily Diego has admirably remedied with crispy, hand-rolled breadsticks.

New Adventures

Diego is definitely a chef-entrepreneur: this summer he opened a restaurant in Bordighera alta: “The “Trattoria dei marinai”“It’s funny, I designed it last year and in a certain sense it represents me – Diego concludes – I wanted to take customers back to the period of the ‘Dolce Vita’, a time that everyone would like to relive and so I re- proposed it together to a classic menu. In October, in Ventimiglia Alta, together with Paolo Boeri, owner of the Roi di Badalucco oil mill, he inaugurated “Twenty by Diego Pani. “A place with Mediterranean cuisine with olive oil. Forty squares, elegant, where the color blue predominates: it is located in a square with an enchanting landscape, from where you can admire the hills of the city, right next to the Church of San Michele.” We expect more surprises from Diego, because we have the feeling that he never wants to stop.

Marco Polo
Promenade Cavallotti 2 – 18039 Ventimiglia (Im)
Tel 01841952500

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