Cementing a reputation built on the prestigious Le Calandre restaurant, in Rubano, northern Italy, brothers Max and Raf Alajmo have spun a web that shines brightly in Italy itself and dazzles across Europe. Woven through it is the secret of their gastronomic success: the intensity of family spirit.
When a restaurant is talked about, the first thing that’s generally mentioned is its chef, especially when that artist, at the tender age of 28, is the youngest chef to be awarded three stars in the entire history of the Michelin Guide. It was in 2003 that the chef of the Le Calandre, Massimiliano Alajmo, earned this distinction, one unrivaled to this day, confirming him as a true genius of the culinary realm. Still, the chef unfailingly insists that the success of the restaurant – and, more broadly, of the Alajmo group – is the fruit of a family tree, born especially of a flawless partnership with his brother Raffaele.
The Alajmos brothers (nicknamed Max and Raf) have gastronomy in their genes. Their grandfather Vittorio was a cheesemonger at the town market in Padua. And it was the boys’ parents, Erminio and Rita, who decided to open Le Calandre in 1981 in the neighboring town of Sarmeola di Rubano. Raf, eight years Max’s senior, would join his father a decade later to handle the wine service while Max finished school, but he had already been spending much of his free time in the kitchens. This would not, however, prevent him from seeking additional wisdom elsewhere, from chefs like Marc Veyrat or Michel Guérard, from whom he learned to honor ingredients while being inventive with dishes. “But the truly eye-opening moment that helped us make Le Calandre what it is today dates back to the early 1990s,” says Raf. “I’d decided to take Max with me on a tour of top restaurants. We set off for France, first stopping at Paul Bocuse’s in Lyon, then at L’Espadon at the Ritz in Paris, and lastly at Buerehiesel in Strasbourg. That was when we understood that there was another way of looking at the restaurant business.” From that moment on, he was wholly devoted to the idea of making Le Calandre one of the finest restaurants in Italy.
Erminio, thoroughly involved in a new restaurant project – the now-closed La Montechia – also understood the need to leave his son alone at the helm while Max gradually took over the kitchens. “Like my father once told me, there can’t be two roosters in a henhouse,” says Raf. Within scarcely 10 years, Le Calandre would become one of the best restaurants, not just in Italy, but in the world, taking its place on the esteemed ‘50 Best’ list. The duo formed by Max, the gifted but unobtrusive chef, and Raf, the exuberant but visionary manager, works like a charm. “When guests come through the doors of Le Calandre, it’s as though they’ve been transported into an intentionally streamlined and simplified bubble that channels their focus onto the dialogues we’ve created between the dishes, the décor, the service, the wines,” says Max. The brothers take this artistic attention all the way to designing the plates and glasses, which they have made in Murano, not to mention the entire range of food products managed by their sister Laura and that can be found at the neighboring Il Calandrino or the chic In.gredienti grocery. On the walls of the restaurant, Max has lavishly expressed his creativity with mini-frescoes that are, in many ways, evocative of his very colorful dishes.
They displayed the same energy when, in 2010, they set out to reawake a sleeping beauty: the Ristorante Quadri on Saint Mark’s Square in Venice. Once again, they put their heads together to choose the times and places for the eating experience, creating dining areas bearing their distinctive fraternal personality: the terrace, first, with a southern and therefore sunny exposure, opening onto the piazza; an inconspicuous counter for enjoying coffee; a trattoria graced with wall frescoes; and a gourmet restaurant upstairs boasting a matchless view of the basilica.
They asked French industrial architect and designer Philippe Starck to oversee the renovation and his creativity can be seen everywhere, not least in the gourmet curio cabinet filled with fascinating details, aided by local artisans. Max and Raf themselves make an appearance among the Bevilacqua wall hangings, while the brothers have created uniforms for the restaurant staff inspired by traditional clothing of gondoliers. “Here, my cuisine reflects the Venetian context, becoming more baroque, more opulent, including a multitude of small dishes that cover the table,”says Max. “But I don’t let it descend into pastiche – instead, it sheds new light on what Venetian cuisine can be today.”
Since 2015, their expansion has extended to the Passage des Panoramas in Paris, which became home to the Caffè Stern, with traces of the Quadri’s atmosphere; the Restaurante Sesamo at the Royal Mansour Marrakech luxury hotel. And then there are new Venetian projects too. Inside the T Fondaco dei Tedeschi department store in Venice, Amo has become the essential refreshment stop when shopping at the concept store. On the island of Certosa, it is Hostaria, part-beach restaurant, part-clubhouse, that extends an invitation to relax. Lastly, a stone’s throw from the lagoon, the Alajmos recently took part in an innovative agricultural campus project (H-Farm) by setting up three dining outlets (Le Cementine, Amor, and Al4 Pizza). This means there are now 13 locations all told beneath the brothers’ umbrella, with some 200 employees bringing the Alajmo experience to life. Ever guided by this family spirit, with Raf’s son Giovanni is now in charge of the Quadri, their signature hallmark is clearly now being nurtured by the next generation.