Inside the kitchen at Ristorante Bergamo in downtown Greenville, voices conversing in a distinct Italian dialect swirl with soft jazz music and wafting scents of garlic simmering in olive oil.
While the jazz music and the smell of dinner being prepped is nothing new for the kitchen, the Italian voices certainly are. It’s a conversation that’s been ongoing for the past few months, ever since Ristorante Bergamo owner Nello Gioia welcomed veteran chef Gian Pietro Ferro into the kitchen.
Even fluent Italian speakers might have trouble following the dialogue, because both men hail from Bergamo, a city in the alpine Lombardy region of northern Italy, from which the restaurant gets its name. The distinct Bergamo dialect, Bergamasque, could almost be considered its own language.
Which is why it’s all the more surreal – and all the more amazing – that after decades spent living in the United States, both Gioia and Ferro can now once again speak to one another in the unique dialect of their childhoods.
For Gioia, it’s almost like coming home again.
“To find a guy who I have no idea who he is, in the middle of nowhere in New Jersey, and I’m out here in South Carolina, and we end up having the same background, same birthplace, same everything – I mean, what are the odds?” Gioia said. “It’s just weird, so very weird – or maybe just meant to be.”
That twist of fate is what convinced Gioia, after nearly 35 years in the kitchen at Bergamo, to officially retire at the start of October, with Ferro now taking over the restaurant.
But that doesn’t mean Gioia will be leaving for good.
“I keep saying, ‘This is my last week coming into the kitchen,’ and he says to me, ‘Oh, we’ll see about that,’” Gioia said, laughing. “I’m going to be in and out anyway. Impossible for me to leave for good, impossible. It’s my legacy here.”
Gioia opened the restaurant in 1986, back when Greenville’s downtown was known more for its boarded-up storefronts than its scenic charm.
“Downtown looked like Europe to me, but it was all boarded up. There was nothing here. So of course I was scared to death about us failing,” Gioia said. “But I told myself, ‘Well, in life you have to risk all you have at least once, to see what it feels like.’”
On opening day, Gioia was convinced he would fail. He’d done no advertising and had no idea if anyone even knew the restaurant existed.
But when the doors opened at 5:30, there was a line of people down the street.
“That’s when I knew what it feels like to risk all you have,” he said. “And just then, it felt pretty good.”
For his part, Ferro knows what it’s like to have trouble retiring.
“Oh, I’ve retired many times,” he said. “But it was boring.”
Ferro made his name in the cutthroat culinary scene of New York, recently helming the kitchen at Machiavelli on the Upper West Side. But with his daughter off at college, and after 23 years of living in New Jersey, he and his wife were looking for a change.
That’s when a mutual friend connected him with Gioia.
“My friend said, ‘Oh, you’re from Bergamo. I have a good friend in South Carolina who is from Bergamo, too,’” Ferro said. “So I call up this man in South Carolina, and then on the phone suddenly an hour has gone by.”
Ferro planned a trip to visit Gioia in Greenville and check out the restaurant, but as it happened, the day he arrived was the day South Carolina shut down indoor dining operations due to COVID-19.
Still, when he made it back to New Jersey, Ferro called to say he wanted to move to Greenville.
“It was an opportunity that was made for us,” he said.
Standing in the kitchen with Ferro beside him, Gioia nodded. “And now here we both are,” Gioia said. “It is like finding your brother.”
As Ferro shook a pan of sautéed shallots over the flames, Gioia called out to him in Bergamasque, knowing they might just be the only two people speaking that dialect in South Carolina – maybe even all of the South.
They speak the same language when it comes to cooking, too, both believing the beauty of Italian cuisine lies in its simplicity.
“I’m from Bergamo,” Ferro said. “Why would I need to change the name of the restaurant, the style? I’m going to continue what he’s created. The restaurant is beautiful. There’s a reason he’s been here 34 years. What do we need to change?”