“Hello–can–you–hear–me?” Gennaro Leone booms warmly. “I’m–on–a–bicycle!” On a bicycle, and on a mission: the founder of cult design studio Spazio Leone is just 10 days away from opening his first restaurant, Dalla, in London’s Hackney neighborhood, and he’s determined to find a specific type of varnish for the countertops—even if it means doing an interview while weaving through east London traffic, effusing about a Riccardo Dalisi-designed cafetiere and Neapolitan liqueurs at top volume.
“I’m so fussy,” he says with a breathless laugh. “Just really, really picky. I feel very strongly that in restaurants, it’s not just about the food, it’s not just about the design, it’s about the point where the two intersect. Every element matters—every single one.” Take fruit, for example. “Growing up, I had to eat a piece at the end of every meal, so at Dalla there will be green figs from Puglia, pomegranates from Sicily, jammy persimmons from Campania… It will be delicious, yes, but a bowl of fruit also brings color to a room, and when it’s arranged like a natura morta [still life], it can transform the way you feel when you sit down around a table.”
Leone has brought the same level of personal involvement, and investment, to every inch of Dalla, down to the bathroom door handle by Luigi Caccia Dominioni (“It’s so heavy, I had to get a spring custom-made for the door; I’m not going to tell you how much I spent on that…”). “I always wanted to open something with family, which is what an Italian restaurant should be, really, rather than having lots of investors,” he says. (Fittingly, the name Dalla is a tribute to musician Lucio Dalla, whose tapes soundtracked the Leone family’s trips to the Dolomites in their Volkswagen Passat every summer throughout Gennaro’s childhood.) It’s his dear friend Mitchell Damota—an alumnus of London favorites P Franco and Burro e Salvia—who will head up the kitchen, joined by Gennaro’s older brother Gianmarco, who’s decamped from Claridge’s for the project, while Sicilian craftsman Oscar Piccolo, whom Gennaro has known for years, has consulted on the interiors. “He’s my right arm when it comes to design,” Gennaro says with obvious affection.
Together, they’ve created a Hackney restaurant that’s as welcoming as a family table in Naples (“It should feel familiar, even on your first visit”), albeit one with serious design credentials. If Spazio Leone’s studio in Hackney Downs is an insouciantly arranged Aladdin’s Cave of Italian-made treasures—Mario Bellini’s Cab 431 Chairs, Martinelli Luce’s ’60s Fungo lamps—Dalla will similarly be a testament to bel paese’s history of craftsmanship. Housed in the same space where Peg once tempted Hackney residents with low-intervention wines and pizze fritte, the ceiling is now graced with a midcentury Stilnovo chandelier, purchased at auction, while a ’30s painting by Milanese maestro Piero Fornasetti dominates a corner of the dining area. Even the mirror in the bathroom is attributed to Gio Ponti, while the wall lights and pedestal tables were custom-made in a Neopolitan workshop according to Gennaro and Oscar’s own designs.
The menu, too, is distinctive; in lieu of serving dishes from any particular region of Italy, Mitchell and Gianmarco’s truncated food offering will feature heartier northern Italian cuisine in the winter—think candlelit dinners of tortellini in brodo di gallina and cotechino with pearà—while the warmer months will be all about southern fare, with every dish intended to be eaten slowly over the course of many hours in the sunshine. Like Bow’s Polentina, the emphasis here will be on niche archival recipes more commonly found in family kitchens than restaurants—a particular passion point for Mitchell, who will be making fresh pasta in-house by hand every single day. (“Not with a machine, no, no, no,” says Gennaro, a charming note of disapproval in his voice.) Tiramisu will be a fixture, with other desserts displayed in a glass vitrine, while the espresso will come courtesy of Naples’s Bar Mexico, where Gennaro used to go “probably, like, three, four, times a day growing up.” As for the wine list: they’re in the process of slowly building up their cellars—with plans to launch their own wine in the future. “I don’t know what it will be yet,” Gennaro reflects, going quiet for a moment, “but of course, I’ve already designed the label.”