sideNotes: My very own Trattoria

By Florian Riem

“Anybody who wants to be a real musician should also be able to compose a menu” wrote Richard Strauss. I am originally a cellist, and like many of us, I love food. In a way, it had always been my dream to open my own restaurant, so when the opportunity came, it felt perfectly natural. It just had to happen.  

Tongyeong, South Korea, December 2013: I had just signed my contract as CEO of the brand-new Tongyeong Concert Hall, when my employer, the city mayor Kim Dong-Jin (himself a music lover) remarked: “Oh, if you would please make sure to do something with the ‘cafeteria’. We need to have some kind of catering for our festival!”

The so-called cafeteria was a huge space with a set-up for an open kitchen, and the Tongyeong International Music Festival was going to start three months later. The very moment he mentioned this “problem”, I knew I would open a real restaurant, and it had to be an Italian restaurant. My own Italian restaurant!

At the time, I spoke not one word of Korean, I was completely new in the country and had no idea about the restaurant business whatsoever. But food, like music, knows no borders, and to cut a very long story short, three months later, one week ahead of the official opening of the concert hall and the festival, “Trattoria dell’Arte” opened its doors for the first time. It had been a miracle but, somehow, I could convince an Italian chef (Franco Sommariva from Trento) and his Korean daughter Stella Ha to close their restaurant in Seoul and move 400km south to the seaside town of Tongyeong, bringing their staff of seven and beginning a success story as the one and only foreign restaurant in this city of 120,000 people. 

Dining is a common problem for concert venues and theatres around the world. Most of them have either no restaurant, or they rent the space to a franchise which will usually close long before the concerts end. ”Trattoria dell’Arte” was different. It would stay open late especially for concerts, and for the many local and foreign artists who visited. And there were indeed many. Daniel Hope was one of our best customers – he would always ask about the restaurant and tell friends around the world to come visit. In 2017, Valery Gergiev fell asleep in the restaurant at 3am after a Mariinsky concert. Christoph Eschenbach loved our Amarone de la Valpolicella, Pepe Romero always had spaghetti carbonara and there was always a bottle of J&B Whiskey for Rudolf Buchbinder. Tigran Mansurian and Salvatore Sciarrino shared a pizza, and Fabio Luisi even ordered a second tiramisu after first refusing to even try any tiramisu outside of Genoa. But maybe one of the funniest moments I remember was when Philipp Glass was introduced to Unsuk Chin: sitting at the same table, he asked about her profession. When she truthfully answered that she was a composer, he went on to say, “It’s not an easy profession to make a living. Are you getting by somehow?”

“Trattoria dell’Arte” got by for seven years until Covid, when it had to make way for a franchise. But I am truly grateful, as are a great many artists and visitors, for the countless meals, in great company, in this wonderful restaurant.