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The Ristorante Galileo is turning 30 – and is concerned about its future

Due to the corona pandemic, the anniversary celebration of the restaurant on the campus of Freie Universität had to be postponed. Given the lack of people on campus, the existence of the restaurant is threatened.

Jul 16, 2020

The Ristorante Galileo specializes in dishes from Apulia, the home of Cosimo Dalessandro.

The Ristorante Galileo specializes in dishes from Apulia, the home of Cosimo Dalessandro.
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

When Cosimo Dalessandro and Chun Wai opened their restaurant on April 17, 1990, one of their first guests was a student who was also new at Freie Universität that day. Now, 30 years later, the Galileo is still a restaurant and the student from then is a professor. Even though he is working at the University of Potsdam, he still enjoys returning to the Galileo, says Cosimo Dalessandro.

Prominent Visitors

In addition to students, who can chose from a special menu with reduced prices, and members of the university, over the years a number of prominent visitors have also dined there: Hans-Dietrich Genscher, for example, who was the German Federal Foreign Minister for many years under both Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, or the political science professor Gesine Schwan, who was a regular guest at the Galileo during her time as dean at the Otto Suhr Institute. There was also Peter Bieri, a writer and former professor of philosophy at Freie Universität, who under his pseudonym Pascal Mercier published the bestseller Night Train to Lisbon. He gave Dalessandro and Wai autographed copies of the book in Italian and Chinese.

Through the Center for Italian Studies at Freie Universität, visitors from Italy regularly dine at the Galileo. A number of them have told Cosimo Dalessandro that their dining experience there was better than in Italy.

Cosimo and Chun Wai Dalessandro have been running the Ristorante Galileo for thirty years.

Cosimo and Chun Wai Dalessandro have been running the Ristorante Galileo for thirty years.
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

Passion for Cooking from Mother

Dalessandro and Wai are particularly dependent on regular customers and members of Freie Universität, as the restaurant is quite out of the way. “We are not in a location where there are passers-by and tourists. If we make a mistake once, we are forgiven. But if we make the same mistake a second time, it is possible that an entire academic department might not come again,” says Cosimo Dalessandro. “There are great expectations for being good all the time. But I take that as a challenge, and so far it has always worked out well.”

That things have always worked out well could be due to Dalessandro’s passion for cooking, which he calls his secret recipe. His main focus is not on sales, but on the satisfaction of his guests. “Anyone who leaves our restaurant should have the feeling they received more than they paid for.” He got his passion for cooking from his mother, whom he kept asking for recipes during the early years of Galileo.

In 1977 the Italian from Putignano in Apulia, the southeastern part of Italy, and Chun Wai, who originally came from Hongkong, met in Berlin. Chun Wai’s father was also a oook, and Chun Wai had never really wanted to work in gastronomy. It turned out differently, even if her own Chinese cooking skills are reserved for the Dalessandro family’s private household. “We have two gourmet children who grew up with the two best cuisines in the world,” says Cosimo Dalessandro. When they opened their restaurant in 1990, they called it Galileo “because it fits well with science.”

80 Percent Less in Sales than before Corona

The couple’s passion is also evident in the ever-evolving menu. Cosimo Dalessandro gathers ideas during the couple’s annual stay in Apulia, a region that with its olive and almond groves is known as the “Garden of Italy.” “We have always cooked very innovatively,” he says. For example, he added burrata to the menu when the creamy mozzarella variant was still relatively unknown in Germany. “Buffalo mozzarella has become more popular over the past ten years, and so have the good Apulian wines like the Primitivo,” says Chun Wai.

Whether it is swordfish, risotto with green asparagus, or spaghetti with arugula pesto – the most important thing is the fresh ingredients. Cosimo Dalessandro goes shopping several times a week, even now, when customers are missing due to the coronavirus pandemic and the campus is closed down. His turnover is down by 80 percent.

Cosimo Dalessandro and Chun Wai had planned a big celebration for their 30th anniversary. That had to be cancelled – or at least postponed. In the past, there were some years when the two were worried about sales, but it was never as bad as now. They usually do their main business during the semester: when students order an espresso in the morning, when the terrace fills up with guests at noon, and in the evening a whole conference delegation comes for dinner. None of that took place during this summer semester.

Cosimo Dalessandro and Chun Wai are still optimistic. “But if the winter semester is also digital only, things will become critical. Then we will really have to worry.”

The original German version of this article was published on June 8, 2020, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.