Toni Campagnol arrived in Valencia in 1996 looking for the sea; George Clooney was here in 2014, looking for Tomorrowland.
They coincided in Toni’s restaurant, Lambrusqueria, where George felt at home. And that’s the thing about this atmospheric restaurant in Calle Conde Altea, and probably explains why it’s pretty much always full while the restaurants around it tend to have their glasses half empty.
You can try to create an atmosphere, or you can just be yourself and let it happen, and although a lot of work has gone into creating a style, it’s the personal touches that seal the deal.
There are three separate restaurants, one of them across the road, another round the corner; but if like me you wanted to sit at George Clooney’s table and not be bothered by your fans, then you have to enter the one on the right and take the largest table on the left as you go in.
Toni doesn’t know why Clooney’s staff turned up looking for a place where Clooney could eat well and discretely, but it’s clear that Lambrusqueria’s reputation crosses frontiers, and even oceans.
Toni only had to cross two mountain ranges to find his new home after leaving his native Torino, and he looked up and down the Mediterranean coast before deciding on Valencia.
At first he continued working in the clothes sector, and even today his wife runs an original clothes shop around the corner (same corner in fact) called Dreams Factory in Calle Ciscar.
Isabel is also responsible for some of the artwork in the restaurant, including the large painting that George must have stared at while waiting for his spaghetti al pomodoro, or his sole.
The Clooney visit was one of the few public appearances he made while working on Tomorrowland in Valencia, where he mainly ensconced himself in his suite at the Westin Hotel. For this reason the media was on his tail and the visit to Lambrusueria even appeared in the British press.
For Toni however, his customers, like his friendly, mostly Italian staff, are part of an extended family, which is a positive feeling that you get as soon as you enter. For this reason he has refused to exploit the visit by hanging up photos of Clooney, as others would, or offering a special George Clooney menu based on what Clooney ordered.
The menu itself tells you a lot about Toni’s philosophy, and not just what you can eat. As it says, he aspires to create the atmosphere of the Italian Trattoria, a family atmosphere which is merely an extension of your own front room, and where you feel and are made welcome (as long as you don’t feel too at home and start putting your feet on the table).
Each section on the menu is an ode to the part of Italy where the ingredients or dish originate, and he defines his own role as the discrete host who is unobtrusive, but always on hand to suggest the best.
There is even a history lesson, reminding us that it was none other than Marco Polo who brought pasta back to Italy from the east.
If the menu informs, the place mats brim with philosophy and life options, explaining among other things that the best remedy is optimism, the best distraction is work and the best teachers are children.
Toni and Isabel’s own children joined me and chatted in English while Toni rushed off periodically to care for his clients. His son is studying law and his daughter rather likes the idea of journalism, and so it looks as though Lambrusueria will be a one generation restaurant.
Clooney is not the only star who has eaten in Lambrusqueria, and neither is Tommorrowland the only international film to be made in Valencia.
Di Di Hollywood starred Spain’s Elsa Pataky and American Peter Coyote, who performed in Spielberg’s ET; and both chose Lambrusqueria above all others, as did Formula 1 driver Sebastian Vettel.
When he first opened Lambrusqueria, customers tried to impose their own limited perceptions of Italian food, demanding pizza and lasagna; but Toni was determined to enjoy himself and to be true to his own idea of what his restaurant should be.
Part of that idea can be seen in the décor, and in fact Lambrusqueria is known locally as ‘the candle restaurant’ because of the candles on each table, and more than one distracted soul has wandered in to buy flowers, presuming that, with so many on display, the place must be a florist’s.
George looks contented as he poses for the photo with Toni, Isabel and their daughter, and that satisfaction, which I too experienced, is not just because you have eaten well and may have had just a little bit too much Grappa (for digestive purposes of course), but because you feel as though, whether you have crossed an ocean, or simply live around that damned corner, you have found a second home, and a second family.