Munich's gourmet restaurants are as colourful as its districts. We meet top chefs at places where they like to have lunch themselves. Our author enjoys a panino with Mario Gamba, before heading to his Michelin-starred restaurant Acquarello in the Bogenhausen district.
Mario Gamba is one of the veterans of Munich's Michelin-starred gastronomy. He worked with famous gourmet chef Heinz Winkler for twelve years at the Tantris, before opening his own restaurant in 1994: the Acquarello. It is not only the only Italian star restaurant in Munich, but, according to many restaurant guides, also one of the best Italian restaurants in the world. Mario Gamba has been running the company for almost 30 years, but quitting is certainly not an option for him yet.
We meet Mario Gamba in a small café called Café Mio in Bogenhausen – a neighbourhood meeting place, breakfast spot and an extremely popular venue for lunch in the district. All tables are taken, luckily, we have a reservation. Since the opening in 2016, Mio has become a neighbourhood favourite.
And that's not just because of the special décor, like the vintage children's bike hanging above the counter, but mainly because of the delicious food: In the morning there are organic breads with avocado, bagels and bowls and at lunchtime changing pasta dishes. After a welcome cappuccino, we order pasta with baked tomatoes and mozzarella, as well as two paninis. This is Gamba’s favourite meal here.
Mario Gamba wears a Ferrari-red down jacket, his grey curls slicked back. He often comes here with his little daughter after school, he says. Besides, he doesn’t live far away. But it’s not just his work that keeps him in Bogenhausen: “Every quarter has its own character: Bogenhausen is dignified and quiet, Schwabing, on the other hand, is creative and agile – and Giesing is like an old-established Munich resident. To lead a good life, we need them all.”
Mario Gamba says he owes it to fate that he ended up in Bogenhausen and Munich in the first place. Actually, he was only supposed to make a stopover in the Bavarian capital at the end of the 1970s. He was on his way from Milan to Rio de Janeiro to start a new job at the Sheraton hotel. But then he met his first wife at the airport and decided to stay in Munich for the time being – until he felt tempted to go out into the world again.
“Every quarter has its own character: Bogenhausen is dignified and quiet, Schwabing, on the other hand, is creative and agile – and Giesing is like an old-established Munich resident. To lead a good life, we need them all.”
In 1994 there was the next twist of fate: Gamba had just taken over a restaurant in Santa Monica, California, when a severe earthquake shook the region. Then came the offer to open the Acquarello. So, the choice fell on Munich again: "I am very grateful to the city, I have always felt at home here and, after more than 30 years, I also have many friends in Munich. I like the Bavarian mentality – even the grumpiness. I'm happy when I'm over the Brenner Pass, but just as happy when I drive back and see the Frauenkirche (cathedral) from the highway.“
Munich is said to be the northernmost city in Italy? How does a real Italian feel about that – someone who knows both places well? “There is actually a lot of truth to this phrase. On the one hand, there is of course the proximity to Italy, like Feldherrnhalle (Field Marshal’s Hall), Theatinerkirche (church) or Ludwigstrasse. Also, on closer inspection, Northern Italy and Bavaria have similar cuisines. A veal breast is stuffed differently in Italy, but the dish itself is the same. And like Italians, many Bavarians are epicures.”
Mario Gamba was born and raised in Bergamo. Until he was 21, he commuted between Switzerland and northern Italy with his parents and two brothers. Today, Munich feels a bit like his hometown Bergamo to him, since he associates fond memories with both cities: “Munich is my second home, if not already the first!”
After school, Gamba trained to become an interpreter for Spanish and French, but, after just one year at the desk, he realised: “That’s not for me”. Gamba comes from a restaurant background; his grandparents had several hotels in Grainau and Garmisch. He was often invited there to eat, watched his uncle in the kitchen, always many guests, always a lot of action. And then he knew: That's what I want to do! His uncle offered him an apprenticeship as a hotel manager.
However, Gamba never completed a classical chef's training. And then straight into star gastronomy? ”I thought to myself, if I'm a self-taught chef, then I definitely don't want to disappoint my parents. That’s why I wanted to cook with the best right away!” So, Gamba worked with various three-star chefs – Frenchman Alain Chapel, Italian Gualtiero Marchesi and finally Heinz Winkler.
The first three-star chef of his life, however, was his mum, he recalls proudly: ”She cooked fresh and delicious meals for all of us every day, and at the weekend we always had three courses. She prepared stuffed pasta already on Friday evening and quickly baked a cake on Saturday.” To this day, the braised beef at the Acquarello is prepared according to Gamba's mother's recipe.
His mum also made him the first dish he remembers: light and fluffy potato gnocchi in tomato sauce that had been boiled down for hours. ”It was always very quiet in the kitchen at our house, because my mum cooked there with concentration and dedication. That's why I always did my homework in the kitchen, because it was particularly quiet there.” And even today, Mario Gamba still attaches great importance to this silence when working.
We stroll over to the Acquarello and are immediately allowed a peek in the kitchen. It is indeed striking how quietly work is done here. You can feel the respect that especially the young staff have for their boss. However, the 67-year-old is not someone who shouts or flips out. If someone makes a mistake, he doesn't address it until the next day in the meeting. His team is a colourful mix, and Gamba receives applications from all over the world.
"I'm happy when I'm over the Brenner Pass, but just as happy when I drive back and see the Frauenkirche (cathedral) from the highway.“
No wonder, because the Acquarello is one of the oldest star restaurants in Munich – only the Tantris has been around longer. Since 2000, Guide Michelin has consistently awarded one star to the restaurant in Bogenhausen. But, the Acquarello has also been named ”Best Italian Restaurant in Germany”, one of the ”10 Best Italian Restaurants in the World” and was even among the ”Top 5 Italian Restaurants Worldwide”. Mario Gamba has been awarded “Chef of the Year” several times.
In addition to braised beef, the Gamba carpaccio has also become a signature dish. It not only looks fantastic, but is also prepared from the best prawns in the world. The ”Gamberi Rosso di Mazara” are caught wild on the west coast of Sicily near Mazara at depths of up to 700 metres, Gamba explains. They owe their taste partly to the salty water.
“Munich is my second home, if not already the first!”
In almost 30 years, Gamba and his team have cooked more than 3000 different dishes at the Acquarello. And yet the chef is still passionate about his work. With great dedication, he chats about fresh water fish, swings ravioli in the pan with concentration and is currently planning a cooking school at various locations in Italy. Yes, idleness is indeed difficult for him, he admits. Even during his two-weeks of annual leave. When he's not playing tennis or hiking through the Capri countryside, he's discovering new foods at the market or asking his friends if he can cook for them.
It's a similar story with the Acquarello: Over the past three decades, there have been so many projects, guests and special events that it's hard to list them all. Two temporary branches of the restaurant – Acquarello Mexico and Acquarello Italy. Mario Gamba has cooked all over the world, including in Singapore, Moscow, Kuala Lumpur, New York, Paris and London. The Rolling Stones, Cameron Diaz and Elton John have all dined in his restaurant. And Celine Dion sang ”Phantom of the Opera” after her meal for the team in his kitchen. Mario Gamba can tell dozens of stories like that.
Before I go, I have two more questions: “How does a Michelin-starred restaurant survive for so long in a big city?” For Mario Gamba, the answer is simple: “If you say you can do it, you can do it. Your own will is your strongest force.” The second question is more personal: ”How can you look so fresh after so many decades of hard work?” Mario Gamba has to laugh: “It's the joy of being able to do what I love – my cooking. We spend two thirds of our lives working, so, you either love it or you go and do something else.”