Dreamers make the world more beautiful. These extravagant eccentrics fascinate us with their seemingly impossible, utopian ventures, while equally making us wonder how their projects endure.
Mario Avallone, 62, is one of these people. Get to know him, and he’ll happily tell you his tale: his travels around the world, his years living in Sicily, his incredible projects and the Mediterranean goods that he sources from A-to-Z. It is this truly extraordinary expertise in gastronomic culture that feeds his Neapolitan pantry – Drugstore Napoli – and the attached tasting room, La Stanza del Gusto, which was created to satisfy the most discerning palates, Neapolitans and travelers alike.
Like any treasure, Mario’s combined shop-and-tasting room is well hidden. To find this most wondrous place, open the small gate next to the church of Santa Maria della Sapienza, located on Via Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, and walk down a 10-meter-long driveway. At the entrance hangs a sign made by Culinary Backstreets’ friend, Pasquale: Vietato lamentarsi (“No complaints”). Mario is an incurable optimist – he has stayed positive during the long pandemic and is now ready to start again.
“I was born in 1959 and have always been involved in food and drink,” he explains. “I cook only because I don’t know how to sing,” he adds with a smile. “And I study every day to do better.” His story begins at the end of the 1980s in Noto, a spectacular Baroque city in Sicily where he had gone to follow love. While there, “a friend told me that in life, there comes a time when you have to choose what you really want to do. It was an enlightening moment… I just liked cooking.”
Returning to Naples in the 90s, Mario refined his gastronomic skills by collaborating with artisans of taste. He worked in a liqueur factory in Sant’Antimo with the Beneduce family, followed by stints in various pasticcerie to learn the secrets of pastry making. He then went on to open his own trattoria in the Chiaia district.
“I cook only because I don’t know how to sing,” he adds with a smile.
But in 1995, he transformed the trattoria into what became the first Stanza del Gusto, “an intimate, private room with a single table where a group of friends could live a true sensory experience with me,” Mario explains. The idea came from his close friend Nino Fiorito, who raved about the small, special gatherings he had attended in New York after exhibition openings and cultural events. By moving the kitchen to the entrance and putting a 12-seater table in its place, Mario created an environment where small groups could informally taste products of unparalleled quality.
In 2009, La Stanza del Gusto expanded: Mario opened a second restaurant of the same name on the same street. Much larger in size (with three levels and 200 square meters of dining space), it became a gastronomic reference point for Naples. At the same time, Mario launched Drugstore Napoli, a grocery store filled to the brim with high-quality goods, also on Via Costantinopoli.
When the pandemic hit Italy in early 2020, Mario closed both restaurants indefinitely but kept the Drugstore’s doors open. Now, as the number of Covid-19 cases drop and businesses reopen, the third phase of La Stanza del Gusto has begun: Mario has reopened the small tasting room in the back of the Drugstore. “We return to the single table, to the future of our origins,” says Mario. In other words, the self-described cuoco mercante – a cook for his “room of taste” and a merchant at his shop – has gone back to his roots.
When it comes to selecting goods for the Drugstore, Mario’s most prominent areas of expertise are tomatoes, pasta, oil, cheeses, cold cuts, wine and spices. His tomatoes are particularly special: “I follow the pomodori from sowing to harvesting, and then have them canned in a small, artisan factory. The result is the real ancient San Marzano tomato,” he says with pride.
The pasta is made with flour “from the best Pugliese grains, which are transformed in small factories in the province of Naples.” The oils, on the other hand, “come from Cilento using a slow production process and a first cold pressing.”
“I offer choice selections and gastronomic solutions,” Mario explains. He is a discerning buyer, devoting his time to searching for niche goods throughout the surrounding region and the Mediterranean. He hunts for small, goat cheese producers in the Apennine Mountains; he visits the valleys of Cilento for the best olive oils in the Mediterranean; and he continually collaborates with liqueur factories to help them improve their products – even having them prepare a series of exclusive spirits for him.
The Drugstore actually resembles an antiques dealer inside. As soon as we enter, it’s hard not to get lost among the dizzying array of goods. Our eyes need to settle before we can soak up all the details and start shopping. Once recovered from our daze, we head towards La Stanza del Gusto, an ancient tufa stone cellar crammed with extraordinary objects. In this internal tasting room, AKA Mario’s “bat cave,” his words are transformed into flavors as we sample products selected from decades of experience.
A meal at this large table often begins with fresh cheese, like a ricotta made that morning by one of Mario’s favorite purveyors. It continues “with a fried dish to cheer you up,” like small vegetables or zucchini blossoms depending on the season. Then, Mario prepares the first course, which in the Kingdom of Naples is always pasta par excellence, prepared with seasonal delicacies.
The second courses can be meat – Mario cooks the most flavorful chicken – or the catch of the day, depending on the customer’s preference. For dessert, he makes his own fantastic, artisanal ice cream, which is followed by a Neapolitan babà or a tart with jam, made with fruit from trusted suppliers that Mario accompanies from seed to harvest.
Ideal for this intimate setting, Mario’s cooking is far from the current gastronomic trends, like eating vegan or drinking biodynamic wine. For him, quality is the most essential ingredient. Rather than put faith in producers whose supply chains cannot be controlled, he follows his goods from conception to consumption. A prescription he sticks to at the Drugstore.
This article was originally published on June 4, 2021.
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