Interview to Angelo Faro, owner of Piccola Roma Palace Italian Restaurant in Chiang Mai


Below the translation, from Italian, of an interview Angelo Faro gave to Manuel Olivares, director of Viverealtrimenti Publishing House, for online magazine Corriere Asia. Clicking here it is possible to read the original Italian.

Angelo, your Italian restaurant, Piccola Roma Palace, in Chiang Mai, is active since 1991. Can you tell us something about your beginnings?

Piccola Roma Palace has been the first professional Italian restaurant, in the north of Thailand. I started to work well from the beginning, both with tourists and with many local customers, curious about Italian food. After about 6 months I’ve opened my restaurant, I had my first encounter with Prince of Thailand Bhisatej Rajani. The impact has been unusual: I went to visit the annual exhibition of Royal Project’s products. This manages organic cultivation of vegetables, fruit, etc. in different areas of the country, on land once cultivated with opium. I saw thistles and I called the staff asking if they had the artichokes. They told me they had not. I insisted because the thistle is the poor relative of the artichoke plant with a good reputation, in Italy, for soups and fried foods. So I asked to talk with the director of the project, explaining how to get artichokes from thistles. Shortly after they sent some artichokes to the restaurant but it was not possible to use them for cooking because of some mistakes in the cultivation. Then, during a following visit, I brought some pictures to Project’s staff to show them what I was talking about. Finally, after some days, I got authentic artichokes. Definitely a new food in the north of Thailand. In the same day, in the evening, Prince Rajani join, anonymously, the restaurant. He had a good experience of European culture and asked my staff some dish of artichokes. The manager came to me, in the kitchen, asking if it was possible to satisfy customer’s request. I replied it was not possible, at that moment and he could order something different from our reach menu. She follows my instructions. Me also, I joined the customer, confirming it was not possible, in that day, to order artichokes. He answered: “the artichokes must be there, because I gave order to send to you, today”.
I was in a funny situation! He wanted “carciofi alla giudia” (cooked in the jewish way). I told him it was a dish with long time of preparation and the product could be served only “al carpaccio” or with rice or fried or boiled as in Roman recipes. He answered: do whatever you want!
I prepared all 4 recipes and, from that day, our relation has always been respectful.
I often  had the pleasure and honor to have this distinguished guest at the restaurant, always accompanied by his wife and several members of Thai and Asian aristocracy.

When my daughter Caterina was born, in 1991, he found the time (despite his several duties) to visit us and to take her in his arms.
The respectful relation with the Prince opened restaurant’s doors to entire Royal Family as well.
Many things happened, I just want to report a couple of anecdotes.
Once I was asked if it was possible to arrange a dinner in the occasion of the departure of Royal Family from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. The place was the palace of Doi Sutheep, over the city. I organized a dinner in the private room of the building for 80 people with a menu at the discretion of mine. So I chose to offer: Stracciatella , tortellini with white truffle , a traditional dish of the Roman cuisine ( Abbacchio ai funghi porcini; lamb cooked in the oven with porcini mushrooms ) and desserts.
The Prince Rajani told me the Queen wanted to talk about the meat I’d served in that party. I was embarrassed and I said I could join the table of monarchs only with my wife Marisa because I didn’t speak neither Thai nor English. When I was in front of the King and the Queen, she asked which kind of meat I’ve offered during the dinner because it was very much appreciated.
When She learned it was lamb, She was surprised because in Thailand it was quite rare.
Since that day, Royal Family started to ask me to prepare “abbacchio”, in their parties with big frequency and, then, it became a dish relatively common in Italian restaurants in Thailand.
Another time, when I was with Royal Family to organize another party in Doi Angkhan (where there is one of Royal residences near a very important field of Royal Project), the PrinceRajani invited Marisa and Caterina on his Rolls Royce, to enjoy the presence of the Queen and to visit the different crops and orchards.
Marisa was a bit sheepish and asked to support me in the kitchen. The Queen told her to leave Caterina (who was about 10 years old) in her company on the car to continue the visit of the Project. Along the way, Caterina was very attracted by strawberry plants. She asked if it was possible to stop. The farmers promptly offered them some strawberries. Caterina, appreciating the fruit, asked to Queen, in a very naive way, if She could borrow some money to buy some plants. Of course the farmers offered some plants to Caterina but the episode became one of the most funny anecdote in the Royal Palace .
The Prince Rajani also introduced me to the Royal Family of Bhutan, in particular to distinguished members of the Fourth Dynasty: the Queen, Her Majesty Ashi Tshering Wangchuk Yangdon and her daughter, Princess Ashi Dechen Yangzom Wangchuck, in a private visit to Thailand. On that occasion I was asked to organize a lunch in Piccola Roma Palace.
I was particularly struck by the delicacy of my illustrious guests (as, of course, I was in the case of the Thai Royal Family ) .
Then I got a phone call by the owner of Hilton, in Bangkok. She was an habitual customer of Piccola Roma Palace. She said she had a gift for me, from Queen of Bhutan. She came in Chiang Mai for a party in Piccola Roma bringing a bouquet of Bhutanese wild asparagus. They were pink, large, each, as a finger and ,simply, delicious.
After a while the current King of Bhutan (at that time he was still Prince) was officially invited in Chiang Mai by Prince Rajani, even because involved in a reforestation project.
I organized another party in Piccola Roma with His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck . On that occasion there was an unusual dialogue. He told me we would meet again, soon. I answered, even by jocke: probably on the occasion of your coronation. It has been a kind of funny prophecy; very soon his father abdicated in his favor and he became the current ruler of Bhutan. He had the kindness to send me, through one of His officials , a special coin minted expressly on the occasion of his coronation.
Later I’ve organized many other parties for the Queen of Thailand, Her Majesty Somdet Phra Nang Chao Sirikit Phra Borommarachininat , with several distinguished guests. I cared, each time, a special menu and, in general, they were all fully satisfied.
Her Majesty had also the politeness to participate to inauguration of new building where I had shifted Piccola Roma, in 2001. She was, of course, the greatest star of the opening ceremony.
Some time before I had even the pleasure of hosting members of an ASEAN summit and, in the same period, the actor Danny Glover and his Italian-Australian colleague Ray Liotta, came regularly at dinner-time, for about 4 months. They were in town for filming Dumbo Drop.
After short time since the shifting of Piccola Roma Palace in the new building I had as an occasional customer actress Angelina Jolie. She was involved in the preparation of movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. A delicious and very discreet person.

The quality standards of Piccola Roma Palace are notoriously high. Have you ever had difficulty maintaining the level of the restaurant in an Asian country? Did you have a particular target of customers?

I don’t remember any particular complication, except when I bought the first local. I  lost money I invested in property (I didn’t  know I had bought only the walls, not the land  which has been, then, claimed back) but, fortunately, I have worked well, there, for 10 years.
Shifting in the new place, I bought the land and I’ve completed some buildings already under construction, commissioned by the previous owner.
I had no problems in obtaining the necessary permits and within a few months, the new restaurant was active.
A more serious problem it is possible to face running an Italian restaurant in Asia is to online casino games find the ingredients and, mostly, their cost.
In Thailand there are no problems to get good Italian ingredients but they’ve always been quite expensive. Import taxes, in fact, are high and that cost has to be added to the ones of transport and distribution. Particularly critical is the situation with alcohol, especially in very recent times. In fact we are seeing raising the prices of wine and spirits of at least 40%.
Problems more difficult to manage are those related to local workers. First of all, Thai have a serious difficulty with English. I know a bit of Thai and my wife is a native speaker but , certainly, there are communication problems with local staff .
In addition, you encounter difficulties of no small importance in terms of professionalism. They are accustomed to the Thai system or to mid-level restaurants. I had the ambition, in Piccola Roma Palace, to offer together with the best quality of food, an excellent quality of service but it is not so easy. I think there is an insufficient number of training schools for hotels and restaurants specialized workers.
Last but not least, a big problem, in Thailand, is the low resistance of employees in the workplace. In fact, there are frequent changes. We know, moreover, that the tourism and the hotels industries are very vital in the country and often people choose to work in that kind of set, considered more prestigious.
I have organized well my staff, motivating people to work with me with proper salaries and working conditions. The response has been satisfactory: my assistant chef, Sumalee, is working with me since 18 years, my manager since more than 20 and I could provide other examples .
Coming to the target clients, I always tried to keep it up even if it is possible to eat in Piccola Roma Palace without spending too much. In fact, the portions are abundant so it is easily possible to order just one appetizer and one main dish, getting satisfaction for low amount of money. More demanding people can benefit from my extensive wine cellar with vintage wines, very difficult to find in Thailand and in Europe too. In Piccola Roma Palace you can still drink Barolo Riserva “82, Masi Amarone “88 -90, Brunelli di Montalcino ’90-‘97 etcetera. I don’t deny to costumers, of course, “everyday wines”, whose standard of quality is still reasonably high. I do not serve wine in flagon, in my restaurant . I’ve also a good stock of spirits; I’m a long-time collector of whiskey, cognac and armagnac.

Have you some anecdotes, in over 20 years of business in Chiang Mai, particularly nice or interesting to share with our readers?

Once Litz Taylor came to Piccola Roma Palace accompanied by her husband. She ordered a bottle of wine dated 1880. Its cost was, of course, very high. I suggested not to open it without following all scrupulous instructions. She answered: don’t worry! The wine should be decanted for a day, if it was still good, the bottle belonged to my collection. They drank it as if it were an ordinary wine, without doing any critic.
Another time, while I was closing the restaurant, arrived box heavyweight world champion WBC Frank Bruno. He was mountain! And he was as hungry as a wolf. He asked if he could eat. I told him I was closing but he was very insistent. He also started to joke showing his  amazement because I didn’t recognize him. He introduced himself and I agreed to supply him some food. Of course I don’t remember exactly what he ate (he was with his manager ), but I remember he left 100 dollars tip for each member of the staff and 500 dollars for me. He returned many times and then sent me all the signed gadgets of the following box world championship.

Which kind of difficulties are you having, today, managing your business?

Certainly the political instability of the country, does not help. Just this week, waiting for the next elections (on February 2, 2014) we are having a discrete drop in the work. But it should be said that this is largely due to bad information and some dramatizations of different countries’ Ministries of Foreign Affairs. Here, however, everything is cool. I suspect some Western countries would like to discourage winter exodus of tourists to Asia and therefore some physiological difficulties in delicate moments like this one, in Thailand, are exasperated. Here, in general, tourists are respected and never involved in local unrest.
Then a restaurant like mine suffers from some common myths and Lonely Planeth’s misconceptions. For example, you can easily read in Thailand it is possible to eat with 40 baht. This is true but the street food. To eat good quality food the production costs, as I’ve mentioned before, are quite high. So some people complain about prices in Piccola Roma. I can verify by reviews on trip advisor. In general, they are more than positive, but sometimes there are critics of expensiveness. I”d like to show to this kind of people the bills I receive, daily, from the importing companies .

Which prospects do you see for the immediate future? Do you think that activities such as your own or even other kinds of activities in Thailand may be advisable, today? Considering the critical moment we’re leaving in Europe, with dramatic effects for employment, especially among the youngs?

Basically it is a professional matter. Professionals can find the doors open everywhere, not only in Thailand but I would discourage people to start to work, today, as a cook, without a proper, long training.
In Chiang Mai , there are nearly 1,200 restaurants reviewed on Trip Advisor, in Bangkok 7500. If someone is unemployed in Italy and believes that one solution might be to come to Thailand to create a restaurant from zero, I think he’s wrong. The country, today, is deeply exploited. We have invested in Thailand in past decades, when the country was not yet involved in such an explosive development. Today we are getting good fruits even if competition begins to be really heavy. To start today, I think, it is much more difficult. However, I do my best wishes to anyone who would like to set up a business here, aware that our young people, in Italy and in Europe, are really doing a great effort to leave decent lifes.

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