Q&A with Masha Rener

The Journal interviews the executive chef at Lina Stores. 

The executive chef at the new Lina Stores on growing up on an Umbrian farm, the welcome changes in London’s Italian food culture, and why pasta al’arrabiata would be her final meal of choice. 

The Lina Stores deli on Brewer Street has been nourishing Londoners with authentic Italian produce for seven decades. It was set up by a “formidable” lady from Genova in 1944, and her name – after which the store is named – has been inscribed across the iconic green and white candy-striped canopy since. The first Lina Stores restaurant opened on Greek Street in 2018, and was an immediate success. Three more restaurants have opened since then – most recently in Marylebone. 

Q: Tell us about your background. Where does your interest in food come from? 

A: My mum was a chef, so I grew up in a restaurant. We had a farm in Umbria with animals and organic vegetables. We were producing all our ingredients for the restaurant, so I got to know how to look after produce from seed. I was out in the greenhouse all the time, tending the garden, fighting with porcupines! The part I found tough was killing the animals, but on the other hand, I knew they’d had a great life. They were free to roam, in a beautiful part of the world. They were raised – and killed – respectfully, and it was explained to me that it is part of the process. It really creates a connection between you and nature and with everything that helps you live. When you grow your own produce, it also gives you respect for Mother Nature. You understand that she is stronger than us. She decides! 

I was constantly in the kitchen – by the time I was 10 years old, I could make homemade pasta with a rolling pin. It was just in my blood. When it came to my career, there were no other options for me, so it was easy to take over the restaurant from my mum. In 2000, I got married and took over the family business. It was a very sustainable place, with just five little apartments and a maximum of 25 seats in the restaurant. My menu was based on fresh food. I’d wake up in the morning, gather the produce of the day and create dishes. I had to be really inventive: sometimes guests would stay for two weeks, and you had to change the menu every day – you can’t feed people the same thing the whole time. I did this for 17 years, more or less. 

Q: How did you come to be involved with Lina Stores? 

A: Before moving back to Italy to take over the business, I lived in London for a time. I was desperate to find Italian ingredients, but back then it was almost impossible to get proper Italian food here. There were some good Italian restaurants, but they were very expensive. Working as a waiter, I couldn’t afford them. Even there, the way pasta was presented was not really Italian: loads of sauce and usually pre-prepared pasta. 

At some point I started going to the Lina Stores deli in Soho. It was the only way I could eat Italian food here – by cooking it myself using their products. It made me feel at home, feel more secure. I remember a lot of friends would come to Lina Stores just to have a sandwich, the panino with mortadella, because it was impossible to find mortadella anywhere else. That’s the good thing about Lina: it brings typical products that tell the story of the people in Italy. 

The Italian food scene in London has totally changed since then. There are many pasta restaurants in London now, which as a restauranteur makes you want to do better, do your research, bring the best Italian produce here. The competition has taken everything to a higher level.

Q: How did the first Lina Stores restaurant come about?

A: When I was living here, I got friendly with the team at the deli – like Italians do! The manager Marina and I became friends. Even after I moved back to Italy, I was visiting a lot because my sister lived in London. When I decided to sell the family restaurant, Marina said: “Why don’t we do something together?” We started to develop the project slowly. We wanted to get the menu right and to find the right place. It was not easy to find a place in Soho. We were super happy to find the space on Greek Street: it’s cute, small and romantic. We opened in May 2018 and it was a big success – I was not expecting it to be this huge. We were a strong team, plus the deli already had a strong reputation. We were cooking in the basement of the deli and bringing the food to the restaurant with a bike, so we had to really coordinate, but it worked. 

Because it did really well, we opened a second restaurant in King’s Cross in November 2019. After that, Covid hit and we were just trying to keep afloat, like all restaurants! We started selling produce and meal kits online and it worked well, so we survived. We opened in the City in 2021. While it is a bigger company now, there is still this family feeling between us – we try to keep that as much as we can. When I do the training, I try to bring that passion. It’s important to understand why you’re doing this job. When you work, you work for a team, not just for the salary at the end of the month. It’s part of your life. 

Q: Now you have a striking new restaurant in Marylebone. 

A: The new site is on Wigmore Street and it’s very beautiful. There’s a big bar downstairs and on the ground floor we have a huge open kitchen, with all the dining tables. All our restaurants have an open kitchen and I think that’s important. You can see the process – that the pasta’s fresh. Also, it’s a nice way for the chefs to be involved in the restaurant, because you’re not stuck in the kitchens just working, working, working, like a factory. You can see people’s faces and their reactions as they eat. When I’m here, I actually live in Marylebone and it’s a really lovely area. It’s very alive. My first stop is always La Fromagerie – it’s the best – and the farmers’ market is one of my favourite places in the world. 

Q: Tell us about the menu. 

A: The menu is more or less the same in all the restaurants, though we adjust it depending on the kitchen – the Greek Street restaurant doesn’t serve mains from the grill, for example. In Marylebone the kitchen is big enough to do that and there will be more stuff to ‘grab and go’ – cakes, antipasti, salads. It caters to everyone, from families who come in with kids to meetings for work. 

We have very traditional dishes that we twist a bit for a Londoner’s taste. In the beginning I was really fighting a lot for tradition. I kept saying: “No, in Italia we do it like this!” But while tradition is important, you also need to match the taste of the people who are eating the food. For example, if you go to Rome, the famous carciofi alla giudìa is a whole artichoke, deep fried. But in London, if you just present a huge artichoke that you have to eat by hand, no dressing, no mayo, nothing, not many people will understand. So, in the restaurant we serve it with aioli. 

Q: Are dishes particular to any region or do you take inspiration from across Italy? 

A: The menu is balanced to give an overview of Italian cuisine. If you go through the menu, every single thing comes from a different area or region. We go from the north, with the tagliolini al tartufo from Piedmont, to the very south. The nduja, for example, is Calabrian. Dishes from the north tend to be more based on dairy, very buttery. In the south, it’s more fresh produce – vegetables like aubergine, courgette, peppers – and a lot of durum wheat, which tends to be used to make dry pasta. Sometimes we try to mix the influences of different parts of Italy in the same dish. 

There are also dishes that we only sometimes put on the menu. The pici alla norcina, for example, which is a sauce of sausage and porcini mushrooms, is a typical Umbrian thing. The polpetta di melanzane is another. It wasn’t on the menu for a few months because aubergines were out of season. That recipe actually comes from the mother of somebody I had a past relationship with. It’s the only thing I kept! She was from Sicily, so she taught me the real, authentic way to prepare the aubergine. You peel it in stripes, like a zebra, keeping half the skin.

Q: What’s your favourite dish? 

A: When people ask me what my last meal would be, I always say the pasta with tomato sauce, pasta al’arrabiata, because I love this dish. It’s just olive oil, tomato, garlic and chilli, but it’s done in a specific way. You have to reduce the sauce to make it thick, and you really need to be skilful to get the right consistency. The timing and the heat that you use make a big difference. It’s sweet and full of taste. 

Interview: Ellie Costigan / Images: Rebecca Hope