How Sicilian Chef Luca Nania Ended Up Helming an Argentinian Steakhouse in MilanBy Emma Harper
This Argentinian steakhouse is the third restaurant opened by the famous footballer Javier Zanetti in Milan — his star power certainly had something to do with its immediate success. Yet the culinary prowess of Executive Chef Luca Nania, who has traveled extensively and opened restaurants across the world, also played an important role.
“The restaurant has been full since it opened,” says Nania. And not just with travelers — locals have also flocked to El Patio, enticed by the promise of high-quality steak. “A successful restaurant inside a hotel is one that attracts not only the guy staying upstairs, but also the guy living next door,” he adds.
Nania’s culinary education mostly took place abroad, where he cooked in a staggering number of kitchens, many of which he set up from scratch.
“I never stopped learning,” Nania says. “When we talk about traditional, regional Italian cuisine, you could talk for 10 years; there’s a lot there. But if you only saw the Italian cuisine, I think it’s too limited. You need to explore, go outside your comfort zone and you’ll see that there’s a world out there that is totally different.”
But he’s excited to be back home, taking his hard-earned wisdom and applying it to a new challenge, an Argentinean steakhouse. “I’m so proud of my work here — I think what we’re doing at El Patio del Gaucho is the best work that I’ve ever done,” he says.
Marriott Bonvoy Traveler sat down with Nania to discuss his time spent cooking and traveling abroad, his experience opening El Patio del Gaucho and the restaurant’s football connection.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you find your way to the culinary world?
Strangely enough, motocross! When I was a kid, I used to ride with Antonio Cairoli, who is now a nine-time motocross world champion. But we were very young at the time, around 10 years old.
Every time there was a big race, outdoor kitchens were set up around the course to feed the motocross guys and the people who came to watch. The guy who owned the course was always looking for people to cook. Since I was too young to compete … I started to cook at one of these open kitchens with the guy’s relatives.
And even though we were literally cooking outside, I adored it. I kept working there until my family moved to northern Italy, where I got jobs in proper restaurants.
And how did you eventually make the jump from Italy to China — where your pizza was named ‘Best in Beijing’?
I had a lot of experience working in pizzerias, and I was lucky to meet a guy from Napoli … who had a factory in Italy where they canned tomatoes. He was exporting these tomatoes and other Italian products to China.
Part of his business plan was opening a chain of pizza restaurants in the country, and he asked me to help him. I was very young, around 21 years old. Six months after that first conversation, I was in Beijing, working in the kitchen of a pizza restaurant.
You went on to open multiple restaurants for Marriott International properties in Beijing and eventually cooked at the famed Seaview Resort on Xiamen Island. How have these experiences and travels abroad inspired your work in the kitchen today?
I learned so much about different cuisines, as well as local products, and working together with talented chefs from all over the world — China, Japan, Korea — helped me tap into my creativity.
Seaview was like my high school, whereas my next post — the JW Marriott Beijing Central — was my university … . My focus was on building Casalingo, an Italian restaurant in the hotel that did traditional and modern takes on Italian cuisine. It would go on to become very famous in Asia.
I then went on to do even more openings for different Marriott International properties in China and Russia … . It was a lot of hard work, but it allowed me to get to know the different brands, and I could learn about all types of cuisines and restaurants. It was like condensing many years of work into a very short period of time.
You’ve got quite a lot of experience opening restaurants! What was your experience like opening El Patio del Gaucho?
When I returned to Italy in August 2018, I started to work at the Sheraton Diana Majestic. By September, I was also working on getting El Patio del Gaucho set up, as well as the rest of the food services at Sheraton Milan San Siro, which was still under renovation at the time. I started looking for everything — all the kitchen equipment, all the cups, all the ceramics, all the necessary machinery. I put my soul into this hotel.
As for the grill, the most important piece of equipment for an Argentinean steakhouse, I was looking everywhere for the right one. I finally found a guy who built them and did excellent work.
I had previously worked in New York–style steakhouses, which are a different beast. So while I didn’t draw much inspiration from those experiences, I did decide to install a Josper, a charcoal closed oven that functions almost like a smoker, at El Patio. We use this cooking method for the seafood, and it results in a completely different flavor than the grill.
We also took our time building the right team, all from South America. It was especially important to get the best asador [the grill master] in town, Paulo. We did a lot of research, and once we found Paulo, he wasn’t available right away. But we were willing to wait for him; he was that good.
What influences your menu here?
An Argentinean steakhouse is a very specific concept, so we mostly follow that, as we know it’s successful. We make sure to have good meat, good service, good wine and even vegetarian and fish options.
It took a lot of effort to research the best meat. All the meat that makes it into the restaurant has been chosen carefully, and I make sure to try it all.
Outside of meat, we also incorporate a lot of seasonal products, so [in November] that means porcini mushrooms and pumpkin.
While certainly a meat paradise, El Patio del Gaucho is also known for its football connection. Can you tell us more?
The main connection is Javier Zanetti, a football legend who is very nice, very polite and he’s a big draw for younger football players. Plus, the people of Milan love him.
Being close to San Siro Stadium, we also have a lot of football teams coming to eat at the restaurant. And on match nights, football fans like to come here once the game is finished. On those nights, the place gets extra packed around 11 p.m. and then is going until 2 to 3 a.m. It’s a very fun and lively atmosphere.