Nino Barbalace, Executive Chef and Owner of Zia Gianna Caffè, is a native Italian chef who recently opened his first restaurant in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. Nino moved to the US from Sicily to complete a post-doctorate program following his PhD in Historic Conservation seven years ago, and is now thrilled to bring the food and culture of his country to Boston through his cooking at Zia Gianna Caffè. The restaurant serves traditional Sicilian breakfast and lunch dishes, as well as Sicilian and American-style coffee beverages, and Sicilian-inspired American breakfasts.
What do I do best?
This is a tough question, but I might say I am best at making people feel comfortable (using food as my tool). I grew up in Messina, Sicily, and a casual, comfortable, familial atmosphere – especially when it came time to gather around the table – was just part of our culture. Recently, there has been a trend at Zia Gianna where one table will start asking me about food or Sicily, and then as our conversation gets going, several other tables join in. They all end up having a conversation together, even after I leave, and that’s a beautiful thing to me. I love seeing strangers become “friends” after bonding over good food and good conversation at Zia Gianna.
What makes me the best version of myself?
I always give my heart and soul to each task I put my mind to, so I would say determination is my most important quality. Along with that, I try to remain optimistic and always look at the glass half full. When you put so much heart and energy into each goal, it can be hard if it doesn’t go as planned, but I always tell myself not to look back or have regrets, even when that can be hard. I just have to look at each event – whether it’s a “success” or a “challenge” – as a lesson to do better!
What are my aspirations?
Zia Gianna is still a new restaurant, so I would love for it to become a well-known destination for authentic Sicilian food and atmosphere. I truly want this to be a place where people feel like they’ve been transported to Sicily – surrounded by authentic flavors, a bright, lively environment, a convivial atmosphere, and friendly people.
I’ve brought many of my hometown favorites to Zia Gianna, including traditional espressos, our famous brioscia bread, homemade meatballs, Sicilian pastries, true tiramisus, and much more. These recipes are ones you would find in Sicilian homes, not restaurants, and for that reason, they’re incredibly important to me – dishes that I hope to share with all of Boston.
My Biggest Success?
My biggest success thus far has definitely been opening Zia Gianna. It was my life goal. My aunt Gianna (the namesake of the restaurant) and I used to joke about opening a place together – a little place with 10-15 seats, no menu, and pure, Sicilian cuisine. I’ve always wanted to do this, and am so happy I have been able to create this beautiful tribute to my Zia (aunt) Gianna.
I hope that Zia Gianna becomes even closer to what we imagined – a place where people can stop in and feel like they’ve come to dine in my home. I have been open for only 5 months, but I think that people are already starting to catch onto that vision. Zia Gianna is not just a regular/anonymous place to dine; it’s a place where people can relax, where I know their name and they know mine. I feel as though I’m taking care of a friend, rather than a customer, and I think they feel that too.
My Most Challenging Moment?
I first came to the US to pursue a career in architecture, and leaving that industry has been incredibly difficult. Even though I always knew I wanted to do something in food, and had worked in my family restaurant in Messina as a young adult, this really felt like a leap of faith, like I was jumping into the unknown, with no certainties or perspectives.
In many ways, this career shift felt like starting over. There was a lot to learn, and it has taken a lot of work, but it has also been so exciting and invigorating. Of course, I still have much to do and learn, but as we say in Italian “ormai che siamo in ballo, balliamo,” roughly translated as, “Since we entered the ball … let’s dance.”
Futtitinni! In Sicilian it basically means “take it easy.” I am a perfectionist and typically very type-A, which can get overwhelming, so I try to remind myself: “futtitinni!”
In Sicily, people often say “futtitinni, pensa a saluti,” which means “Take it easy, take care of your health!” It’s a reminder that instead of getting worried about something or getting anxious over nothing, you should try to live light-heartedly, to care only about the important things and let go of those you can’t control.
My Favorite People/Role Models?
My favorite person and my role model was my aunt, Zia Gianna. Gianna was a born nurturer in the sense that she was gifted in her ability to care of people through food. The way she served people made it clear that food wasn’t just cooking to her, it was an expression of love. She knew that food brought people together, and she used it to create spaces filled with warmth, compassion, and sharing. That is exactly what I’d like to accomplish at Zia Gianna, and that’s one of the reasons why I named my caffè after her.
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
Italy of course! It’s always nice to go home every once in a while, see family and friends, and eat homemade Italian food. Each time, it’s like an awakening of the senses. There are just certain flavors, smells, and sights that you can only find at “home” – intended in its broadest meaning.
My Favorite Products/Objects?
My favorite objects are my series of Sicilian ceramics, in particular my Moor Heads from Caltagirone (Sicily). These particular objects aren’t just ceramics, they’re actually symbols of Sicilian culture, as the way in which they’re made is a thousand-year-old technique that has been handed down from generation to generation. Many years ago, Sicily was similar to the United States in that it was a boiling pot of cultures – including Greek, Romans, Moors, French and Spanish – all of which contributed to make the country what it is today. I like to remember that with these objects, and brought them with me to the US for that very reason.
My Current Passions?
I currently have two. One is to continue building my restaurant by introducing more Sicilian recipes and flavors. And the second is to decorate Zia Gianna in a way that will provide guests with a comprehensive sensorial experience – from the aromas to the flavors to the interior aesthetic. I’ve been trying to bring in the colors of Sicily (the blue of the sky/sea, the yellow of the sun and the wheat fields, the green of the plants) and am hoping that our guests feel that. I’m focused on recreating my miniature version of Sicily inside Zia Gianna – an experience that allows customers to get away, without a flight or passport!