Daniele Usai, the sailor chef

Daniel Usai proposes a deeply romantic cuisine based on a holistic vision of raw materials

by Francesca Portoghese

From the sea to the stars, this is the trajectory of Daniele Usai’s story, a chef with a friendly Roman accent who declines all the dishes he brings to the table in his language as he enriches scents and flavours with a continuous search for innovation aimed at superlative elegance and a perfect balance between tastes. In his restaurant Il Tino, this sailor chef, as everyone calls him, presents a cuisine that expresses the profound study of culinary techniques and a love for the culture of food that has its origins in the chef’s personal history with constant references to the Sardinian and Sicilian cuisine.

Usai began his professional career at a very young age, “a time when cooks were not yet called chefs and the spotlight was directed only at the clients, who were the true protagonists at the table”.

Daniele Usai introduced spices, algae, and an exotic touch into his cuisine with a maritime vocation. He focused mainly on the senses of touch and sight.

And, at Il Tino, this is still the way things are done. The long apprenticeship Daniele Usai can boast about taught him to draw the biggest pleasure from the satisfaction of those who taste his dishes. Before settling in Fiumicino, he travelled quite a lot and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with important names like Gualtiero Marchesi, Antonio Carluccio, and Enrico Derflingher.

Usai brought the technique of fish maturation to Italy, which he learned with the great Gérald Passedat. The fish is stored in a refrigerator which controls temperature, humidity, and ventilation and extracts ozone (which has a natural bactericidal effect) from the atmosphere and inserts it in the refrigeration chamber.

In 2006 he returned to Ostia, opened his first restaurant and received a Michelin Star. After some years, spurred on by Pino Stillitano, an internationally acclaimed yachtsman, he moved to Fiumicino inside the shipyard Nautilus Marina. This is how Il Tino, an establishment with a minimalistic style, came to life – as in the case of luxury boats – within an entirely custom-made project that involved the best workforce in the industry working with a nautical inspiration.

In this elegant and intimate location – at once full of light and cosy – local flavours are the imprint the starred chef gives each one of his dishes, which are made with unique traits combining the personal touch with the love for highly contemporary and refined cuisine. Daniele enjoys personally hand-picking his raw materials and going to the fish auction in Fiumicino or to the docks to buy from the smaller fishermen of the area, the ones with the “little boats” who provide local fish. His cuisine is complex but distinctive, deeply rooted in tradition but also combined with a strong urge to explore lands beyond his territory, in an operation that is “fluid like water, and where the sea sets the pace with its products – in fact, variations in the menu never happen regularly”.

Daniele Usai intends to take Il Tino on board a boat. With three or four boats from the yard to berth in front of his restaurant, he will be able to offer guests marvellous dinners at sea.

The Nautilus Marina also hosts the 4112, the local sea tavern where Usai serves a cuisine strongly linked to the traditions of the territory. The simplicity of the dishes, which can be enjoyed in a more informal environment compared to Il Tino, overlooking the marina, also reflects the excellence of raw materials and the distinctive nature of Usai’s cooking. Whether it is the cuisine of Il Tino – avant-garde yet concrete – or that of 4112 – more linked to the culinary culture of the land – Chef Usai’s cuisine always makes use of the aromatic herbs he grows in the two vegetable gardens close to his two restaurants. More than fifty plant varieties ensure an incredible carnet of different nuances. Daniele Usai never spends too much time away from his restaurants, but when he does, he allows himself to experience places that are not contaminated by everyday life to be able to take a step back and improve himself, as he observes his work and everything that revolves around his cuisine from a different perspective.

(Daniele Usai, the sailor chef – Barchemagazine.com – August 2023)