It began in a basement
From a small Sicilian town, Partinico, to Dusseldorf. Giuseppe Saitta’s story is not only about a geographic leap, but also about two completely different worlds that meet. On March 2016, Palermo and Dusseldorf were declared ‘twin cities’. Behind that agreement, is our protagonist. Step by step he created a miniature empire. Today Saitta, who is also a municipal councilor in Dusseldorf, owns four restaurants. The first was Osteria Saitta, then came Piazza Saitta and finally, two new locations in 2015, Va Veloce 1 and Va Veloce 2. Quality is high and when the city hosts fairs and conference, many traveling Italians make sure they eat at Giuseppe’s. His customers, Italian and not, linger long into the night uncorking great bottles and enjoying reliable, high-quality food, free of any special effects.
Giuseppe, what brought you to Germany?
My father came to Germany in 1965, to work at the Mannesmann firm. They made metal tubing. If you remember, in 1968 there was a bad earthquake in Sicily. My father came home to get us and the whole family joined him in Germany.
Were there problems at first?
Certainly, language was an obstacle at the beginning. I overcame it playing soccer. That was my way of integrating. I played well, and I quickly became one of them.
How did you get interested in food?
Papà had an accident and couldn’t work in the factory anymore. So suddenly, he had to invent a new job. In front of our house there was a tiny grocery store. We took it over with the bit of savings we had. That was 1975, and it was little more than a basement. We began to sell Italian products. You have no idea the reactions of our customers when they saw us cooking for ourselves during lunch hour. Those aromas must have seemed exotic to them. They stopped by to see what we were eating. That’s how we started our tavola calda, a prepared-foods, take-out place, in 1982.
And after the tavola calda?
We got bigger slowly. We opened the first restaurant, Osteria Saitta, in 1990. The idea was to reproduce our home-cooking, the recipes we made for ourselves: pasta with tomato sauce, lasagna, eggplant. In 1997 we added Piazza Saitta (Barbarossaplatz), and last year we opened Via Veloce 1 and 2. The idea of these last ones was cooking suited for lunch hour, flexible and fast. Germans have less time to eat compared to Italians, so we cook simple recipes, to order. In the evening, the places become regular restaurants. The formula is the same as before, with a food counter where you can buy good cheese, cured meats, a bottle of wine. We are a wine bar, restaurant and delicatessen all in one.
What do the Germans like most about Italian cucina?
We made a name for ourselves for our truffles recipes, even if we’re not exactly from Piedmont. We work with all types, ranging from exquisite white truffles from Alba, to black ones, to more affordable summer varieties. We realized that baked pasta casseroles aren’t popular, but cooked to order, quality dishes, are. In Dusseldorf, the level of restaurant offerings is very high, and the public is demanding.
Is this an Italian wine moment?
By chance we found ourselves working also as distributors in order to satisfy our own demand but also to show off new products. Among the most successful was the explosion of Venica&Venica wines, and those from southern Italy, above all Nero d’Avola. Then there’s the Lugana phenomenon. We sell rivers of it – inexplicable. Pinot Grigio had a moment, then Chardonnay, now Lugana. As if there were no tomorrow.
How big is the Italian community in Dusseldorf?
Once, we were the second or third largest group in Dusseldorf. Now, many have gone back to Italy. Today there are about 7,000 of us, and about 700 Italian restaurants! Many have become citizens, and we’re talking about third-generation Italians. Even I speak German to my daughters at home.
All in all, how is life in Dusseldorf? What do you miss?
We live divinely well. It’s a safe city. If you love sports, there are many opportunities. I love the jogging paths that cross the old city, the bridge, the views of the Rhine. There’s a rich cultural life with opera, theater, six museums. People here love Italy. Perhaps they even neglect their own traditions to dedicate themselves to ours. They invite me to dinner and cook pasta with sauce that cooked for 10 hours, like my grandmother made. What do I miss? I’ll be trite, but that’s how it is. Light, sea, sun.