End of an era as Umberto’s restaurant in Norwich closes
- Credit: Shaun Lowthorpe
For nearly 25 years he has been a feature of Norwich's restaurant scene.
But now Umberto Iannello is calling it a day with plans to put his feet up and to travel - including a trip to see his daughter in San Francisco and spending more time in Southern Italy.
The 78-year-old has been at the helm of Umberto's in St Benedict's Street since October 1992, serving his own blend of fine Italian and rustic dishes.
But on March 15 the restaurant closed its doors for the last time following a sale of the leasehold to new buyers.
So while Umberto – who first came to UK in 1967 waiting tables in Wales, before heading to Cromer, and later to Norwich – may be hanging up his cooking apron, work is underway to transform the site into a vegan restaurant to open on June 1.
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'I am taking it easy,' he said. 'I am just living day by day. I don't make a long-term plan, just a short-term plan.'
He spent 15 years running his own restaurant in his home town of Tropea, in Calabria, and when his chance came to open a restaurant in Norwich, he says he was determined it would be an exclusively Italian experience.
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He said: 'My idea was to be 100pc Italian. That wasn't accepted by all customers, but eventually they realised that was the way to eat Italian food. 'But over the years, people became more knowledgeable.
'When I first opened I chose only to serve Italian drinks – people asked for draft beers and lagers, and I lost some customers in the beginning because I didn't supply French, Greek or Yugoslavian wine. I had to adapt to suit English tastes, but it was always 100pc Italian.'
His signature dish was 'papadelle', thin layers of lasagne-style pasta in a spicy sauce.
'Every individual dish was made on demand. Sometimes people had to wait a long time because I don't believe in pre-cooking the food.'
While he says English palates have become more sophisticated over the years, he also laments the rise of Italian restaurant chains.
'There are too many places with Italian sounding names, but no real Italian cooking going on there,' he said. 'They are all chain restaurants.'
Work is now underway to transform the site into the new vegan restaurant.
'People still ring up and ask why I have closed,' he said. 'When you have regular customers coming into the restaurant, they are like part of the family.'