The lung of Istanbul is the Bosporus and one keenly feels the essence of it in Arnavutköy, a neighbourhood famous for its small unassuming fish restaurants, yachts and sailing ships, and the whiff of the sea on the air. It is the very essence of Istanbul; a city perched on two seas and full of the excitement from the nonstop action over the water.
Hidden things are sometimes the best things. This is the case with Antica Locanda, an Italian restaurant nestled behind a few potted trees and the Ayios Taxiarchae Greek Orthodox Church in Arnavutköy, one of the most bustling port neighbourhoods of Istanbul.
One of the most inspiring ways to find Antica Locanda is to wander through the incense-laden, chandelier-heavy air of the Greek Orthodox Church and gaze upon the century-old icons often depicting unknown Christian mythical scenes, and even perhaps light a candle. On this Easter Sunday, the atmosphere was suffused with a distinct mysticism. Churches near the water often have a particular charm; perhaps from the closeness of sailors and the vagaries of Mother Earth. This one was no exception.
Outside the church, we came upon a doorman feeding the gulls and cats fresh anchovies from the Bosphorus. At first, the old man seemed to be feeding the alley cats but soon we understood the meal was more for the huge seagulls who swooped down to push the frightened cats out of the way. The man was clearly on the gulls’ side; when, with the gusto of an ancient mariner, he kicked one particularly fearless cat out of the way to let the seagulls, some speckled young gulls and some older more seaworthy white giants, enjoy the fish.
Upon watching this feast, we heard our rumbling tummies, anxious for the delicious brunch awaiting us. We left out the back door of the church, so to speak, and past a few Byzantine tombs stones, happened upon the restaurant, a pale yellow façade. The entrance to the restaurant is so discreet as to be unnoticeable but evokes the tranquil streets in the Trastevere in Rome where all the best food, almost a connoisseur’s secret, is to be found and the restaurants are known mostly through word of mouth. Antica Locanda is situated in a building that used to be the residence of the church next door, with a small garden at the back hinging on the church grounds. To be frank, I didn’t expect much of the Italian cuisine in Istanbul but I was overwhelmed, as were many of the guests in our party, by the subtle flavours and truly Italian cuisine of the chef and owner, Gian Carlo Talerico.
Gian Carlo asked not to be photographed. Instead he wanted to be remembered by his delicious food.
It seems that Gian Carlo has not only been seduced by the beauty of Istanbul women, (his wife is the reason he moved here and opened the place in 2011) but also by the spices and ingredients only to be found in the city. “The place also reminds me of Milan,” Giancarlo says, “and the cobbled streets remind me of Italy.” he adds. “I met my wife on a cooking class in Lucca, Tuscany and then was tempted to move here. That is life... Unpredictable.” “But it is not always easy to reproduce Italy here.” he confides. Apparently, some Italian restaurants in Istanbul replace mascarpone with yogurt or labné and sometimes other things, too. At Antica Locanda, "Pure Italian Food" manifesto comes before everything, even though sometimes acquiring Italian ingredients in Istanbul can be very costly.
We were there to enjoy the Alla Famiglia brunch menu, offered every Sunday from noon to 15:30 which included an appetizer, primi piatti, secondi piatti, and dessert for an extraordinarily reasonable 85 TL (~30 euros), considering the gargantuan portions.
The Alla Famiglia concept is to bring together young families for a relaxing Sunday afternoon, while drinking wine and savouring the specialities of the neighbouring Mediterranean country. We were a merry crowd; a digital marketing guru and his American audiologist wife, a Turkish born, American-educated young professional couple, an editor from The Business Year, the founder of a multinational Internet start up and a Turkish writer and photographer. Let’s not forget about three small children, ages ranging from one to four years old, all giggling contently. As anyone with a family knows, it is hard to find a respite with small children and food is perhaps the most agreeable and the most comforting way of getting together. The only reproach would be to add a few more high chairs to the restaurant, as the Alla Famiglia concept seems to be catching on fast.
The place lends itself to families with a bright and airy dining room, its Cousin, Cousine table settings with vases of spring flowers, chiselled blue glasses, white napkins and table clothes... and its general conviviality.
Up a sweeping staircase; two more dining options await the guests. An intimate table next to a wine cellar (my personal favourite) then on the mezzanine, a large table for up to twenty guests, hidden from view, perfect for a family gathering or a Mafioso style business lunch.
The walls are lined with photos of the Italian movie stars, Mastroianni, Loren and others, and Italian songsters take their part as the soundtrack to a wonderful meal.
At a neighbouring table, several generations were gathered to partake of a brunch and enjoy the moments of family life; moments which can be hard to live again. “The Turks and Italians love children, one of our particularities” said one of our party, “and we all love food. So it is not too hard to see how this place exists.”
Can you pass me some more of that?
Can I have a spoonful of that?
Could you put some more of that on my spoon?
These were the requests punctuating the brunch throughout. Conversation flitted between talk of life as an expatriate, the best fish to eat at the best time of year, the publishing business and other things such as teething concerns. “Food brings people together,” I thought. “It soothes the stomach and liberates the mind.” My husband hadn’t seemed so content in days, particularly after his hectic week at the office.
A burrata cheese entrée covered in truffle oil and shredded Orient (sundried tomato), with sprinkles of dried raspberries and blueberries was the highlight for me, melting in the mouth with a touch of the Orient adding to its appeal. I kept returning to it, a taste of Europe and yet a tinge of the East I had come here for. Accompanied by a mix leaf arugula salad, a warm, sort of bruschetta saltimbocca, Neapolitan pizza topped with anchovy, tomato and cheese, devoured by the children, some fine beef Carpaccio and a mozzarella braid entrée opened the palate. The accompanying cheese and onion omelettes had perfect and simple flavours.
Our primi piatti included a wonderful Calabrian Casarecce with tomato based lamb sauce and a Bologna style lasagna heavy with cheese, served home style in hot dishes reminded me of the Italian philosophy. No snobbery; just wonderful, delicious, heart-breaking food. The bread, chickpea flour or garlic flavoured made on site, kept coming. Grilled veal with peppercorn sauce, very subtle and the meat cooked to perfection was the secondi piatti. And a lamb dish, tender parcels of roasted and equally succulent lamb served on a bed of perfectly steamed deep, green spinach was to follow.
This meal seemed to imply what we always knew. Food should be just as delicious and unpretentious as when your grandmother or mother prepared it for you.
When the desserts came, marron glacé and mascarpone flavoured ice cream, a crème brulée with berries, and the most heart warming anis-seed cookies and almond biscuits made with love. As I dipped the cookies in dark Italian espresso, I was grateful, grateful for the memory of what good food and good company tasted like. Affettuoso! I will return because good food is also about memories. And family! And meeting new friends!
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Photographs of Antica Locanda & Ayios Taxiarchae Church are taken by Seza Bali.