Vallebona belongs to an entrepreneurial Genoese family that moved to the tiny Sardinian island of San Pietro in 1810. The family thrived as Mediterranean traders, exporting everything from salted tuna to olive oil, before diversifying into construction, industrial machinery and cars. For 10 years, Stefano ran his own company selling Ferraris and Porsches, then, in 1997, aged 30, he decided to give up the business and move to London. "My family have always been great Anglophiles, but my mother never wanted us to move here," he says.
He spent the first three months living London life to the full, all in the name of market research, you understand. "I spent a fortune on eating in the best restaurants and travelling to and from Italy to find suitable suppliers," he recalls. Released from the mundane, he felt free to consider new possibilities. "London is an amazing place," he continues. "People are open to trying new things, experimenting with food. If you have money, you can eat better Italian food here than in Italy."
He designed his product list by choosing his favourite Sardinian ingredients. It was almost as if he were planning a dinner party. You simply had to have a good mullet bottarga (salted grey mullet roe), as well as pecorino, prosciutto crudo made from wild pork, and bitter corbezzolo flower honey to drizzle on puddings.
Having eaten his way around the capital, Stefano Vallebona began to approach the chefs whose food he liked. Nino Sassu, the Sardinian chef and co-owner of Assaggi in Notting Hill, remembers their first meeting: "He was very professional, knowledgeable and relaxed. Unlike most suppliers, he just let the ingredients sell themselves." Esoteric Sardinian foods like saba (grape juice which is flavoured with lemon peel and prickly pear and cooked for three to four days), abbamele (honey cooked with pollen) and gooey riobiola cheese, which is made from a blend of cow's, sheep's and goat's milk, all appear on his product list. At last, Nino Sassu could season his white wine and juniper sauce with a little saba to serve with Gressingham duck breast, drizzle his ricotta and summer fruits with abbamele or toss his gnocchi and shredded trevisse in some pungent, melting riobiola.
Vallebona's product list has grown with his widening experience. Succulent Mediterranean sea urchins are packed like blood plasma and flown in when Floriana in Beauchamp Place needs them. Ornamental wedding loaves are bought on sight from two old ladies who make them for the Pope.
But with shrewd financial foresight, he has decided not to expand his restaurant business further, thereby keeping his customers happy and retaining its exclusivity. Instead, he is going to create a new take-away business, with recipes based around his food. In the meantime, if you feel the need to nibble on some fruity little papassine (after-dinner cakes) to stay your appetite, you can always order a few goodies by post
Sardinian Food & Beverages, 58 All Farthing Lane, London SW18 2AJ (0181- 877 0903); Assaggi, 39 Chepstow Place, London W2 (0171-792 5501).