For more than half a century a unique institution of Italian cuisine has nestled discretely in a backstreet in the heart of Covent Garden, one of London’s oldest and most richly colourful locations. Giovanni’s is the capital’s personally chosen Italian restaurant by the world’s most famous celebrities, whose acclaim of its authentic culinary delicacy and softly intimate atmosphere is shared by the many gourmet connoisseurs who frequent this lovingly tended venue. The chef and owner, Pino Ragona, indeed devotes his personal attentive service to all his customers: “I want them to feel at home and be treated in the way my family and I do when we are in a restaurant”, he says. “A smile does not need a translation”.
So it is that Giovanni’s is recognised as London’s finest Italian restaurant, where Pino passionately advocates the protection of a pure and specialised traditional cuisine that he has directly inherited through the long lineage of his aristocratic ancestry. As Count Pino Ragona of Sicily and the latest descendent in an unbroken lineage since 1436 and 175 year line of pre-eminent nobility restaurateurs, he has since childhood been deeply aware of the values of genuine Italian gastronomy. “I am applying the preservation principles of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites to the cuisine I have loved and understood all my life, just as my father and his forbears did. So often today there are those who indiscriminately make changes they do not understand to the meticulously nurtured traditions that I was brought up to experience. They confuse modernisation with improvement and in doing so they destroy essential beauties of our heritage. I try to make dishes finer and finer all the time, and occasionally I will experiment, but this is always within the strict guidelines of the authentic tradition that must be observed to create the truly special experience of genuine Italian cuisine”.
Pino Ragona first savoured that experience at home in the Sicilian village of San Michele di Ganzaria in Catania, where he was born, 54 years ago, into a long standing and distinguished family of restaurateurs and gourmet affezionati. The heritage extends back to October 13th 1836, when King Ferdinand II and Queen Maria-Theresa of Austria with their cavalry visited the Sicilian nobleman Count Ignazio Ragona in his estate. The estate quickly became a centre where the Sicilian aristocracy regularly met, entertained their guests and enjoyed the fruits of the island. They were treated to a cuisine that became legendary, since the Count’s passion and discernment as a fine food epicurean was recognised throughout Sicily, and he attracted the most sought after chef and pastry makers in the land. The passion and the expertise were passed on continuously through the successive generations of the Ragona family, and they live on today in Pino at Giovanni’s.
Pino’s father, Virgilio, came to London to open Giovanni’s in 1952 – not out of any economic necessity, but in the spirit of adventure. He decided this would be a small restaurant in a tucked away location with ten tables – about 40 covers – and his objective was to give the customer a specially exclusive quality experience in an intimately private atmosphere, which could only be attained in a select environment of modest numbers. His vision and its subtly expert implementation with, in due course, his son Pino, created a clientele that has become the stuff of legend. A remarkable array of the most powerful personalities from theatre, cinema, opera, royalty, political life and sport have passed through the simple old door and narrow little hallway that opens out into a warmly furnished and discreetly lit space that is like a luxury but undemonstrative private dining room. The walls are adorned, though in tastefully gentle arrangements, with signed photographs of the very many celebrities who have loved to consume the authentic Sicilian gastronomy while relaxing in the homely, family atmosphere of this ‘bijou’ of a restaurant. Pino has volumes of personal anecdotes recalling evenings with Elisabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Katherine Hepburn and Frank Sinatra – Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Luciano Pavarotti, Carlo Bergonzi and Juan Diego Florez – Prince Charles, Princess Diana, and the Royal Family of Monaco – Diego Mardonna and Pele.
For many of these personalities, Giovanni’s has become like a second home. Pino relates how Frank Sinatra used to send letters addressed to Ava Gardner at the restaurant. “She frequently dined here, and Frank Sinatra knew he could write to her privately at our address, using the codeword ‘Alfredo’. We always knew that was from him and was meant to be given to Miss Gardner. This was some years after they had divorced, of course. I also particularly remember on one occasion when Frank Sinatra was here, it was back in the mid 1980s when my father and I were together, he wanted to draw a map of Sicily to show us exactly where his Father was born, so we let him draw on one of our tablecloths!”
Pino also remembers that the idea of the Three Tenors Concert was in fact first conceived during an informal dinner at Giovanni’s. This has a very happy resonance for him because he loves opera and, as he says “What I have always wanted the customer to feel in our restaurant is the thrill and beauty of what Italy has given to the world – a combination of its great operatic heritage and its unique culinary tradition. I like to think that what our visitors experience here is the food that the great Italian opera composers – Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini – loved and appreciated, together with the special atmosphere that has been generated by the great performers in our restaurant who have devoted their lives to bringing those composers’ creations to the world in the very finest and most inspired interpretations”.
Pino Ragona has two children aged 13 and 10, Giuseppe and Azzurra – they are already very talented chefs and are following in the footsteps of their father to bring the unique Ragona tradition of haute cuisine to its 200 year anniversary in due course. Pino also acknowledges the very important role his English wife, Claire, plays in his affairs. They have been married for 15 years, and in that time Claire has devoted herself to help Pino in the succession to his father’s creation, in particular helping to bring an awareness of the family’s aristocratic and distinguished lineage to the British community. As a courteous Countess Ragona she sensitively promotes a national understanding of the special tradition that is behind the unique status that Giovanni’s enjoys.
Pino Ragona is one of the major ambassadors of Italian culture in London, and this is born out by the rare honour he received when, in 2002, he was invited to Buckingham Palace as one of the very few Italian’s at the Golden Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II. Now he is a special guest of honour at the London Jazz Party, together with another very talented fellow countryman, the young Sicilian drummer Gianluca Pellerito. Pino brings his celebrated gifts to this event with a delicious creation: “I am so happy to participate and put my signature on the dinner for this exclusive occasion alongside the brilliant talent of my internationally famous young compatriot Gianluca Pellerito. I have already had the honour and privilege of meeting and getting to know some of the most remarkable and truly great human beings of the world through my restaurant, and this is for me a particularly emotional opportunity to be alongside Gianluca, a Sicilian as I am, who already as a young man has become established as one of the world’s finest emissaries of Italy’s art and culture.”
And it is an emotional experience for Pino’s customers when they absorb the magical atmosphere and authentic Italian gourmet cuisine he so imaginatively and subtly presides over in Giovanni’s restaurant – the embodiment of a unique aristocratic heritage.