THE HERITAGE OF ITALY’S SINKING CITY IS BROUGHT TO LIFE IN IMMACULATE DETAIL AT SEPA IN MID-LEVELS. Charmaine Mok MEETS THE MAN BEHIND THE TRANSFORMATION
The culinary and cultural heritage of Venice is brought to life at Sepa
Giacomo marzotto’s excitement is infectious as he gives us the grand tour of Sepa. We’re doing rapid rounds of the restaurant, traipsing upstairs and back down, opening doors and craning our necks as the voluble Italian talks animatedly about each and every detail of his pet project. Set on Caine Road in the shadow of the Mid-levels escalator, the modestly sized premises is a richly detailed tribute to the bacari of Venice, small wine bars that also serve finger food. It’s full of literary and cultural references and artisanal relics, which all come together to craft a story much bigger than Sepa’s mere physical form.
Most restaurants are based on a concept, but Marzotto’s approach is several layers deep. At the centre of Sepa’s visual language is a fanciful narrative featuring the key characters from Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 comedy The Servant of Two Masters. Truffaldino, comically tormented by an insatiable hunger, is the character most closely connected to the concept. The characters show up as coasters, on business cards and as menu items. For example, the Florindo Mojito—developed by cult mixologist Rogerio Igarashi Vaz of Tokyo’s Bar Trench—is named after the play’s drunk murderer. The visual cues continue with the attire of the staff, who wear the distinct royal blue and white stripes of gondoliers as they deliver cicchetti, savoury snacks and small dishes typically served in bacari, to the diners.
“People usually think that in Venice, you eat pretty badly. Which is true, if you don’t know your way around,” laughs Marzotto, who is driven by a desire to showcase the food of his upbringing. Cicchetti are often described as the Venetian equivalent of tapas. “The concept of cicchetti was born and developed in Venice, but it never really made its way out. Some may not even know what a bacaro is all about,” says Marzotto, using the singular form of the word.
The word bacaro, he continues, is deeply connected to wine, being derived from the name of the Roman god of agriculture and wine, Bacchus. And Sepa is a contemporary
rendition of the traditional Venetian wine bar, as interpreted by 33-year-old Italian chef Enrico Bartolini, who formerly worked at the two-michelin-star Devero Ristorante north of Milan. “We want to give a bitesized expression of the Venetian culinary landscape,” says Marzotto. Much of the menu involves classic fresh ingredients from the sea, including the titular cuttlefish ( sepa in the Venetian dialect). But that isn’t all. “People don’t know that the republic of Venice used to extend all the way to Milan. So game, beef and lamb were also present on dining tables throughout history,” says Marzotto, and have a place on Sepa’s menu.
The former Valentino executive’s passion for his hometown extends well beyond its food. “There are plenty of opportunities to talk about Venice in a way that isn’t necessarily connected to food,” says Marzotto, who until September last year was Valentino’s area manager for Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Australia. “There are arts, crafts and culture.”
It was his broad interest in promoting the many facets of Venetian culture that led him to quit his high-flying corporate job last year to devote himself full-time to life as a restaurateur. His family background and experience developing locations for Valentino outlets across the region had set him up well for the challenges of crafting a culinary project from the ground up.
“I’ve always had entrepreneurial blood because of my family,” he says, referring to the Italian textiles behemoth Marzotto Group, which owned Valentino until 2005. “Luxury has also always been a part of my life. But I’m obsessed with food and I could see a gap in Hong Kong for this style of food.” So Marzotto, the holder of an MBA, switched his ambition from the retail industry to hospitality and began to explore how a restaurant project could showcase the beauty and format of Venetian dining.
Marzotto embarked on a process that took him back to Venice seven times as he developed his concept, each time seeking out and wooing Venetian artisans and bright, innovative Italian chefs able to help him carry out his vision. Less than a year later, that vision has materialised in the form of the elegantly curated space at Sepa, where every detail has been considered in relation to its connection to Venice.
Marzotto strides across the main dining room’s terrazzo floor (Venetians developed the material) pointing out fascinating details of the decor, such as handmade books with intricate gold-leaf lettering made by 4th-generation master bookbinder and
SEPA IS FULL OF LITERARY AND CULTURAL REFERENCES AND CULTURAL RELICS, WHICH ALL COME TOGETHER TO CRAFT A STORY MUCH BIGGER THAN ITS MERE PHYSICAL FORM
papermaker Anselmo Polliero; traditional papier-mâché masks crafted by the specialist workshop Bluemoon Venice; and a wine rack whose construction resembles le bricole, the iconic mooring posts for gondolas. The beautiful windows of bulls-eye glass are of particular significance to Marzotto, as they are one of the final works of famed Venetian glass artisan Luciano Bullo, who retires this month.
“There is expertise that has been developed generation after generation,” says Marzotto. “There are people who are still keeping the skills alive—often not to make money, but for the passion and the desire to not let these traditions die. It’s great that I can showcase them on the other side of the world. Sepa is a place with a soul,” he says emphatically. “It has a storyline. There’s authenticity. I saw the opportunity and it was just a matter of convincing people to make my dream a reality.”
Sprezzatura in sepa Giacomo Marzotto, the restaurant’s founder, switched from fashion to food in 2013
Attention to DETAI L Every element at Sepa strives for a connection to the culture and history of Venice