Honestly Italian: From Milan to the Algarve
Roughly translating to ‘come off it’ or ‘no way’, ‘mavalà’ is an Italian expression used to express surprise and disbelief. An expression you can use when you realise there is no need to travel to Italy to taste the most authentic Italian cuisine because you can do that in downtown Faro.
Mavalà Osteria Italiana, a cosy little Italian restaurant located on Largo da Madalena in Faro, opened its doors when chef Davide Prandi left Milan in search of a new culinary challenge. A straight-talking and humble man from the Monza and Brianza province in northern Italy, Davide studied at the Alma Culinary School in Parma and later worked with Gualtiero Marchesi, the father of modern Italian cuisine, and in some of Milan’s top eateries.
He came to Portugal in 2014 and, just a year later, decided to open his first restaurant. “At first, I didn’t know how to run a restaurant. I just knew how to cook,” admits Davide, who had to hit the ground running and learn.
Known as the original Italian wine bars, where snacks were also served, osterias have evolved to offer more serious gastronomy. And Mavalà does just that, with great finesse. Behind a large burgundy door, a rustic dining room invites us to make ourselves at home. An old wooden sideboard, a large mirror, a collection of paintings, sketches and family photos on the walls and lampshades give the room a very intimate feel.
Talking about Mavalà’s concept, the chef explains it serves “cuisine du marché”. In other words, market-fresh cooking.
“I go to the market, see what I can find, and create a menu,” he says. Although the produce is Portuguese, he insists the execution is 100% Italian. “What we serve most is food from the north of Italy,” the region he is from and where he gets inspiration for his wintery dishes.
“Ossobuco, Vitello tonnato, pumpkin ravioli, risotto”, and, of course, lots of homemade pasta, freshly made by his mother, who followed him to Portugal when he opened the restaurant.
He regularly goes back to Italy to visit producers, talk and choose wines with friends, and bring back small quantities of quality produce he cannot find in Portugal. Especially wine, which he reveals is one of his great passions. “I like wine. I like to talk about wines. I like to drink wine,” he says with fervour. A growing passion reflected in his expanding wine list, which includes increasingly more natural wines. A type of wine which, although made today with more discipline, can be challenging to sell to customers. However, Davide believes his menu and wine selection attracts like-minded customers.
At Mavalà, the menu changes weekly, according to what is in season and available at the market, and is often adapted to the catch of the day, such as the meaty mackerel Davide found on the day we visited and served with a garlic sauce, chicken jus and creamy carrot and almond purée. Charcoal-grilled, the fish’s crunchy skin, tender flesh and succulent juice were an explosion of flavours and textures.
“It’s domestic cuisine. We are more ‘à la minute’. We don’t use vacuum bags, temperature cycles”, or many other techniques used in fine-dining restaurants. Professionally trained, Davide says, “the techniques exist, but we prefer simplifying them”. For him, the products are what matter most, and to enhance them he likes to use more direct cooking methods, such as grilling.
In essence, it is refined comfort food, which can be enjoyed à la carte or in the chef’s tasting menus. At lunchtime, there is a quick formula of two or three courses (€15/€19), and in the evening, in a low-lit atmosphere, the three or five-course menus (€35/€45) are designed to be enjoyed without time constraints, and with the wine pairing option (€18/€32).
Everything is homemade, including the bread, to be dipped in olive oil from Tavira, and the multi-flavoured focaccias. To tease the taste buds, Davide serves little amuses-bouche, such as a crunchy puff pastry with creamy chicken liver pâté, which he pairs with Polvanera Verdeca from Puglia. For starters, there is tomato, Stracciatella cheese and anchovy and garlic sauce, or pasta dishes, such as ravioli with pumpkin, sage, creamy Parmesan and hazelnut crunch, served with a fresh Italian Rosato Vivace di Rabasco made with Montepulciano grapes from Abruzzo.
The first main course can be al dente linguine with shrimp and pistachio, served with a Dom Vicente 1º Acto rosé from the Dão, and the second main course, comforting Milanese meatballs fried in butter with Parmesan, which gives them an unexpected crunchiness, served with potato salad and a glass of Cascina Belmonte Stramonia (Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon). And to finish on a sweet and light note, there are delicious desserts like thin, crispy pastry with hazelnut mousse or Sicilian cannoli with pistachio.
At Mavalà, Davide truly makes a point of making his customers feel at home. “Our customers are people we know personally,” he insists. And with his attitude, it is no wonder. It is an osteria, so forget online bookings: “If you want to come here for dinner, you have to talk to me on the phone.”
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