For nearly 25 years he has been a feature of Norwich’s restaurant scene.

But now Umberto Iannello is calling it a day with plans to put his feet up and to travel – including a trip to see his daughter in San Francisco, and spending more time in Southern Italy where he was born.

The 78-year-old has been at the helm of Umberto’s in St Benedict’s Street since October 1992, serving his own blend of fine Italian and rustic dishes.

But on March 15 the restaurant closed its doors for the last time following a sale of the leasehold to new buyers.

Umberto's front

 

Work gets underway to transform restaurant into a vegan venue

 

So while Umberto – who first came to the UK in 1967 waiting tables in Wales, before heading to Cromer, and later to Norwich – may be hanging up his cooking apron, work is underway to transform the site into a Vegan restaurant to open on June 1.

“I am taking it easy,” he says. “I am just living day by day. I don’t make a long-term plan, just a short-term plan.”

Although he never formally trained as a chef, Umberto learned his trade while waiting tables and watching chefs first-hand.

“My style is unique,” he says. “I do not pick up my recipes from books. I had some ideas, but I made up my own recipes, which weren’t easy for other people to copy!”

He had spent 15 years running his own restaurant in his home town of Tropea, in Calabria, and when his chance came to open a restaurant in Norwich, he says he was determined it would be an exclusively Italian experience.

My idea was to be 100% Italian

 “My idea was to be 100% Italian. That wasn’t accepted by all customers, but eventually they realised that was the way to eat Italian food. But over the years, people became more knowledgeable.

“When I first opened I chose only to serve Italian drinks – people asked for draft beers and lagers, and I lost some customers in the beginning because I didn’t supply French, Greek or Yugoslavian wine. I had to adapt to suit English tastes, but it was always 100% Italian.”

His signature dish was ‘papadelle’, thin layers of lasagne-style pasta in a spicy sauce.

“Every individual dish was made on demand. Sometimes people had to wait a long time because I don’t believe in pre-cooking the food.”

While he says English palettes have become more sophisticated over the years, he also laments the rise of Italian restaurant chains.

“There are too many places with Italian sounding names, but no real Italian cooking going on there,” he says. “They are all chain restaurants.”

Umberto closed his doors for the last time on March 15, and now work is underway to transform the site into the new vegan restaurant.

Umberto's refurbishment

“People still ring up and ask why I have closed,” he says. “When you have regular customers coming into the restaurant, they are like part of the family.”