Bar Corallini: From the Bay of Naples to Wisconsin
By Brian E. Clark
In the waters off the village of Torre del Greco on Italy’s Bay of Naples, a young Giovanni Novella often hunted octopus, cuttlefish and other sea creatures for the restaurants where his uncle worked as a chef.
“I knew just about every nook and cranny in the rocks of that part of the bay,” he boasted.
“I come from a fishing family, so anytime I can fish, I love it,” said the 37-year-old Novella, who would go out at night with a lamp and speargun to stalk his prey.
These days, though, his fishing is in fresh water lakes in the Midwest of the United States. So his catch is often lake trout, bass, walleye, bluegill, crappie or even the mighty muskellunge, known locally as ‘muskies.”
And while he has strayed more than 5,000 miles from his birthplace, he remains in the restaurant business, part of Madison, Wisconsin’s lively culinary scene.
He now runs the Bar Corallini (barcorallini.com) on Atwood Avenue in the hip Isthmus neighborhood between lakes Mendota and Monona.
Novella said he chose his restaurant’s name to honor his hometown, where people are known for gathering coral from the sea – hence the moniker “Corallini,” which means small corals.
He still serves many of the delicious Italian dishes he learned in his grandmother’s kitchen, including burrata, bucatini carbonara, paccheri and, of course, braised octopus. He also makes his own mozzarella cheese, about 200 pounds a week.
“My grandmother is the best cook I ever met and the flavors she created were incredible,” said Novello, who worked in restaurants up and down the Italian peninsula, in Greece, Germany and on cruise ships.
But he’s also strayed a bit from his native kitchen, creating vegan recipes to satisfy the local Madison crowd.
“We have a very vegan-friendly menu because of this neighborhood,” he said.
“But my mother could not quite grasp the idea,” he said with a chuckle. “I spent about 30 minutes telling her how I was making vegan ricotta without milk – with plants like soy or nuts. She couldn’t get the concept.”
She would however, embrace his wood-fired Margharita pizzas and other dishes he creates from scratch, including a daily special.
When my partner and I dined there recently, we feasted on tasty eggplant fritters, risotto with salmon and scallops, plus chicken piccata. For dessert, we had gelato and cannoli.
Novello said he entered a culinary school at age 14 near Sorrento and stayed for five years.
“I went to school in the morning, worked at restaurants at night and would spear octopus after I got off,” he said. “I was kind of nuts about that.”
He later worked on cruise ships in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
“My first trip was seven months and I lost 80 pounds,” he recalled. “It was hard work with no breaks and the chefs were mean. I hated it at times, but now I’m glad I did it.”
After that, he moved to northern Italy and worked with a man he said was one of the best pastry chefs in the country.
“I thought I wanted to be a pastry chef, but I became bored,” he said. “Pastry is more like a science because you have to measure everything precisely.
“But the kitchen is much more creative because you can add things at the last second. You can express your personality more. You don’t have to plan two days ahead. You can do something right on the spot if you are so inspired and I liked that.”
At age 22, he found himself working for a top chef at an ancient villa in southern Italy that focused on weddings and other events.
“Weddings are a very big deal in the South and I was always learning new and interesting things,” he said.
But Novella also had wanderlust and when – at age 25 – his sister told him a chef in San Diego was looking for help, he jumped at the chance to work in the United States at a dining spot called “Voce del Mare” or “Voice of the Sea.”
“But I didn’t speak more than a few words of English then,” he recalled. “The restaurant was in La Jolla and it was all Italians in the front and all Mexicans in the back. So I learned Spanish first, which is a lot like Italian.”
As his English-language skills improved – thanks in part to the cartoon television show “Sponge Bob Square Pants” – he took on more responsibility at the restaurant. He also, after six months, met his future wife. Who happened to be from Madison.
And he improved the fare at the Voce del Mare, buying fresh ingredients from a local farmers market instead of opening cans and going to grocery stores.
After Voce del Mare closed, he worked in San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood at a pizza place where he also made pasta and risotto in a wood oven.
“It was a very dynamic and creative place,” he said.
Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, he opened the Stella Public House on San Diego’s east side that was a gourmet coffee house on one side and farm-to-pizza on the other.
Within 18 months of his arrival, he and his wife married. A year later, they tied the marital knot again at a big wedding in his hometown in Italy.
After his spouse became pregnant, they began talking about moving to Wisconsin, where she had family. They now have three children, all of whom were baptized in Torre del Greco.
“So you could say she dragged me here,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s taken a while to get used to the winters, but it has been a good move for us.”
They arrived in 2015 and his first job was at “Cento,” a Food Fight restaurant on Madison’s Capitol Square. (Cento means 100 in Italian.)
“I didn’t want to be a chef here at first,” he said. “I just wanted to be a line cook and see what was going on.
“They said ‘We have a restaurant for you and at first I responded ‘No thanks, not just yet.’” he recalled.
After a year-and-one-half, he moved on to the Fresco, a fine-dining fusion restaurant in Madison’s Overture Center.”
“But I still had a dream to open a restaurant to do whatever I wanted,” he said. “So while working at the Fresco, I started looking for space. The Food Fight people also knew of my plans.
“And it didn’t hurt that the founder of Food Fight owned the building where Bar Corallini is now located.”
The previous tenant, the Chocolaterian Cafe, had burned.
“When I walked in to look, it was all black and charred,” he said. “So we had to redo everything. But there was a big window on the street and I could imagine myself making pasta there.
“I fell in love with the place, sketched the kitchen and in a partnership with Food Fight, opened Bar Corallini seven months later making the kind of Italian food that I wanted to create.”
That was in 2019 and Novello said the restaurant was a hit from the start.
“We got so busy as soon as we opened the door,” he said. “And then COVID arrived. Though the restaurant never closed, I had to lay off most of the staff.
“It was tough. Just me, the line cook and a manager. It was six or seven months of hard, hard work where we were putting gourmet food in boxes to go. But now, thankfully, we are back to being booked most every night.”
Novella said he has altered some of his recipes to fit Midwestern tastes, such as serving heavier sauces in the winter.
And while he is from near Naples, he said his menu isn’t exclusively Neopolitan.
“I’ve had many culinary experiences, so I pick and choose: Pasta from Rome, seafood from the coast and combinations from all over,” he said.
Novella makes his own limoncello drink with lemons from a grower he knows near Sorrento. He also buys pasta from a farmer who lives about 20 minutes from his hometown.
“They clearly taste so much better,” he mused.
“People have been telling me I should bottle my limoncello, so this fall I may start selling it. And, of course, I will use my grandmother’s recipe.”
Visit Bar Corralini.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.