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    Silvio Ursini

    In 2002, the Creative Director of Bulgari, Silvio Ursini, took a sabbatical and launched a worldwide chain of restaurants – or, more specifically, mozzarella bars – called Obikà. As the latest London branch (after Canary Wharf and South Kensington) opens in Charlotte Street, W1, the Neapolitan, who is also back in the fold running Bulgari hotels, tells Brummell that the key to luxury is craftsmanship.

    When I started at Bulgari, we had 10 stores. It was a venerable brand, but it was very small. Now, we have almost 300 around the world. When I was Creative Director for the whole group, we were designing jewellery, watches, fragrances, accessories… It offered me an opportunity to travel the world and see that there is a huge appetite for Italian products and lifestyle. But, while there are many Italian fashion and luxury brands known worldwide, there was no Italian food concept present everywhere – not counting, let’s say, pseudo-Italian stuff that no one in Italy has ever heard of. So, my idea when starting Obikà in Rome was to make something Italians would love first, then eventually take it abroad.

    My inspiration, both aesthetically and in terms of how to present food with reverence, was from Japan’s sushi bars. I think the combination of the minimalist environment and the presentation, along with warm, generous, traditional fare, is what makes Obikà what it is today. People are tired of these nostalgic places where, to be Italian, you have to have your chequered cloth and your candle in a chianti bottle and your garlic bread. Enough of that.

    When I first saw a sushi bar in Tokyo 25 years ago, I immediately thought you could apply the idea to the finest Italian produce, especially Mozzarella di Bufala. The way of telling a good mozzarella is by the porcelain white shine of the skin. And then when you cut it you can see the difference between the skin and the inside – you should see the liquid coming out. You can tell a good mozzarella without even tasting it.

    ‘I think the combination of the minimalist environment and the presentation, along with warm, generous, traditional fare, is what makes Obikà what it is today.’

    In the last 10 years there has been a surge in demand for the best mozzarella in the DOC area of Campana that has brought more wealth to the area. But it’s not easy to find people who are willing to become master cheese makers; it’s a very hard job. The craft is very important to preserve. Personally, I think that luxury in all areas is about craftsmanship. A lot of people think that it’s about design, but actually design without craftsmanship is worthless. In my work for Bulgari, I have found that some of the best luxury product ideas come from working with the craftsmen, because they know what they can do.

    Craftsmanship is so important. The pasta that we use is from Gragnano. The Gentile family makes it the old-fashioned way. They dry it for two days, and the father goes in every two hours to smell it and touch it to see when it’s ready. There is no robot or machine. It’s a lot of work, but the family is committed. It’s refreshing to see a new generation involved in these things. Otherwise these things become industrialised, which leads to standardised products that are less satisfactory. And it is the standardised, uniform process that makes the workers involved alienated.

    I think there is nothing more satisfactory than being the master of your own fate, and some of the happiest people I’ve met are cabinetmakers who work by hand. If you think about it, most of the great luxury brands started out in a craft. Bulgari was a silversmith, Louis Vuitton made trunks, Hermès was a saddlemaker.

    I have the same attitude with Bulgari hotels. Each one is custom-designed. We used the same interior designer for consistency and it has a very strong contemporary Italian feel, but in every place we blend that with a local sensibility. With London, which opened in 2012, we saw a city that, although very open to modernity, is very deep in tradition.

    We went back to the silversmith tradition of Bulgari, but commissioned two guys with a workshop in Kent to create a pair of handmade sterling silver chandeliers for the ballroom – they’re the biggest pieces made in the past 200 years. Also, there are lots of details that are not obvious. For example, soundproofing is of fundamental importance. Sometimes people invest a lot in the decoration and then you hear someone in the corridor or the next room. People have been reporting that their sleep has been fantastic – it’s because the windows and doors are so well soundproofed. It’s like you are in a cocoon.

    It is important to make sure the main ingredients are right, whether you are ensuring a guest will sleep well in a hotel, or eat well in a restaurant.

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