In the kitchen with…
Chef Giorgio Chrimat of Villa Nova Restaurant
Story by Sarah Gonzales
Photography by Danny Daniels Photography
As a child, Giorgio Chrimat's mother and father owned a restaurant where they also prepared food for the less fortunate in the neighborhood. "I grew up in the kitchens," he says. It was young Giorgio who delivered those meals all over his village of Taormina, Sicily. This helped to develop an early culinary sensibility while also cultivating what would become his signature, old-world hospitality.
At age 16, Giorgio moved to San Francisco to live with an aunt who also owned a restaurant. There, he learned more about the culinary business until he returned to Europe to attend a culinary academy in Milan.
His education was interrupted by the Korean War, but after serving his country he continued his education at Le Cordon Bleu in France, followed by apprenticeships, and then chef positions, all over Europe.
Despite a budding culinary career in Europe, Chef Giorgio also had a hunger for adventure. He returned to the United States and resettled in San Francisco where he read about a dam project in Canada that was advertising for cooks. The company hired him immediately when he demonstrated a deep knowledge not only of cooking, but also of menu planning and budgeting – skills, no doubt, learned from his mother and father who managed to keep their restaurant open during World War II by serving whatever they had. "Even if it was only potatoes and vegetables," he says. "What they did have, they served."
He would eventually open his first restaurant in San Francisco where, in the mid-1970s, a few of his regular customers mentioned a pipeline project in Alaska that was looking for cooks. Once again lured by adventure, he says: "I told my girlfriend about Alaska. She said no, so I left!"
"I just wanted to be in Alaska," He recalls. "It was peaceful, it was nice, the people were nice and the skiing was great!"
Villa Nova was born in 1981 when Giorgio purchased an existing pizzeria. He then built his own restaurant business slowly over time, beginning with just four menu items that were written on a board on the wall and included exotic-sounding dishes like "gnocchi" and "papardelle."
"I introduced things to people in Anchorage they had never seen. I made fresh raviolis, fettuccine, desserts, dollar-sized pizzas called foccacines; there was olive oil on the tables," he says, describing the early days of Villa Nova. "No one else was doing that then." He started serving specials on Wednesdays and then on Saturdays too, he says, as a way to introduce new dishes to his customers who kept coming back for more, even lining up outside in the cold weather.
The word spread and Villa Nova became "the best secret in Anchorage," he says, with its unique hybrid of Sicilian-Italian-American cuisine and a hand-selected wine list, all served in a little strip-mall restaurant near the airport. It wasn't too secret, though, and in 1990 Giorgio expanded the restaurant to include a bar and an additional dining area to accommodate his growing number of customers.
Villa Nova's success is due in part to Chef Giorgio's worldly cuisine, but it's also a result of his generous hospitality, a skill that cannot be taught in even the best culinary academies. "You go in some places and you don't know who the hell is the owner!" He exclaims, jumping off his barstool to mimic a customer walking into a restaurant and waiting awkwardly by the hostess stand. He throws up his hands and shakes his head. "I was brought up to treat people like family," he says adamantly. "Our hospitality is great and it has to be taught from the family, from the house; this is the source."
"I've cooked all over the world," says Chef Giorgio. "I did what I wanted to do and I'm happy. If God wants me to be around, I'll still be here cooking for people, talking to people, welcoming people."