If our grandfather, Aldo Bianchi, were alive now he would be in the kitchen crafting pasta with Ben and Joe, or charming the customers and knocking back a Negroni, front of house, with Dom. We all know that hospitality ran through his blood and so it runs through ours. But we never got to meet the man we grew up hearing stories about. Our Nonno died a few weeks before Sam, the first of what would be his eleven grandchildren, arrived.
Aldo was born in 1924 and grew up in Griante, a small village at the foot of the mountains on Lake Como, in the north of Italy. He was the youngest of seven and adored by his mother, Afra, who gave up her training as an opera singer to marry her husband, Francesco. He was a blue-ribbon chef with a big reputation. When the wealthy families who occupied the elegant villas around the lake had guests, it was Francesco that they always sent a boat for.
Aldo took after his father. As a young man he trained in ‘classical hospitality’; management, all the culinary arts and gastronomy. He stood out amongst his peers. His talent was prestigious and people were drawn to his easy laughter, his penchant to take risks, his championing of the underdog and his willingness to throw a party. No-one knows when our Nonno first began to gamble, but it was this act that went on to define the course of his life.
He met Ellen McTeague, our beloved Nonna, here in Bristol when he came to work at the newly opened Chateaubriand Restaurant at the Grand Hotel in the 1950s. Nonna’s first sight of him was through a keyhole. She was behind the door giggling with her friends as they took it in turns to eye up the new Italian arrivals. Aldo and Ellen married and quickly had two daughters, Frances and Anna, followed by Claudina and finally, a fourth daughter, Vittoria. By now Nonno’s gambling had become a problem that he was unable to manage alone. Despite a reputation for hard work, fairness in the kitchen and flair in the restaurant, he could no longer find work locally.
For a decade Aldo found employment away from home. Meanwhile Nonna finally secured a council house and worked long hours in the Llandoger Trow to create stability for her children. Despite the daily stress she lived with, and her noticeably self-contained nature, she still extended a welcome to others, particularly those people who were frequently regarded as ‘outsiders’ at the time. Nonno would come back to Bristol, in between jobs, as frequently as he could. Returning home from school, the girls would find ribbons of green tagliatteli drying over the backs of chairs again, rows of potato gnocchi sitting on floury trays, or a pot of rosemary-infused minestrone simmering on the gas cooker. The milkman Sid would be invited in once more for a Saturday morning Martini.
Nonno would plate up meals for any neighbours who were sick. And on Sundays the ‘big table’ would be pulled out and lunch would last most of the afternoon.
Over those years, family life continued to be a fragile mosaic of glimmering colours, sharp edges and broken pieces. Eventually, our grandparents parted and Nonno found a job in Cardiff. Anna, Ben and Joe’s mum, married Mike in 1979 and Aldo, once more, had a home to return to every weekend. After one especially sumptuous meal he gave a special benediction to his new son-in-law when he slapped him on the back and declared, ‘this boy can eat!’ We could not predict that within the year, Nonno, at 55 would be dead. He collapsed in the kitchen at work from a brain haemorrhage and died in hospital 28 hours later. His four daughters and Nonna were left bereft. Despite their difficulties as a couple Nonna commented that, for the first time in her life, she felt now alone as a parent.
Aldo had never taken his family to visit Italy, despite endless promises that he would. Dina had found her way there independently, as had Nonna and Vicky for one fleeting visit with Frances. But after his death, grief carried them back in quick succession, including Anna and her newborn son. And so the the alleyways Nonno ran through as a boy, the lake that he swam in as a teenager, the stony mountain path he climbed to San Martino every Sunday, became part of his family’s landscape too. And Aldo’s girls were finally able to study the faces of their deceased grandparents on the black and white photographs that adorned their graves. Most significantly, the whole family had now met Aunty Dina and Uncle Arnaldo, the two siblings of Aldo’s who had never left Como. Ellen had always maintained letter contact with them. And, despite the language barrier on both sides, their mutual respect had been immediate when they first kissed each other’s cheeks.
In the months and years that followed, the family’s shared bereavement created bonding, and their experience of grief transformed into gratitude. Visiting Como became the norm. As did drinking grappa every summer with Aunty Dina and Uncle Arnaldo, as they dished out gelato to their brother’s growing brood of grandchildren. And so Griante became another aspect of home in the hearts of Aldo’s daughters and their kids. For Vicky and Carlos, Dom’s parents, this part of the story can be measured in land and stone. In 2007 they bought a small apartment in the village, unaware until they were informed much later on, that Nonno had often played in the garden of it when he was young.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of our grandfather’s death, and the opening of our fourth premises, Bianchis. Our mothers sometimes muse how we, along with our cousin, Olivia, who owns Adelina Yard in Bristol, discovered a path that wasn’t obvious to us all growing up. They recognise in us what they remember as the best of their father. Lineage is a mysterious force and hospitality is our heritage; we feel privileged to be expressing this in what we do and how we do it. Roots entwined, all the way from Lago di Como to Bristol and back again, joined in a circle of love.