Move over pizza: Italy’s food is so much more than the iconic and stereotyped symbols of Italian cuisine worldwide. Now top chefs are finding inspiration in regional dishes and ingredients, turning Sicilian fried breads, slow-braised offal and rustic ricotta fritters into fine dining fare with flair.
Yet, while lesser-known dishes are on the rise, pasta certainly hasn’t had its heyday. What’s more, half-moon casunziei and correctly made malfatti are now joining the better-known gnocchi and rigatoni on Michelin Star menus – though they might be deep-fried Roman style or coated in a southern Italian duck heart and liver ragu. In Italian restaurants, from London to Hong Kong, what’s old is new again – and all the better for it.
© 1/8 Otto e mezzo HK
The “King of White Truffles,” Chef Umberto Bombana, is the only chef with a 3 Michelin-Star Italian restaurant outside of Italy. His 8 ½ Bombana in Hong Kong is named in honor of the famous Italian film and the ingredients he sources from his homeland deserve just as much praise. Even his restaurant’s offshoots in Shanghai, Beijing and Macau impress, especially when a humble dish like minestrone comes dressed with the finest white truffles from Alba and his lauded veal chop Milanese is so crisp that guests hear the crunch of the breading as the server slices the bone-in chop tableside.
Pasta has also be re-invented with dishes like Burrata ravioli with black olives, cherry tomatoes, basil and eggplant sauce, putting a creative spin on classic fare. For dessert, attentions turn to northern Italy, with choices like Chestnut ice cream with hazelnut bavarese and candied chestnut, or a Semifreddo with blueberry jam, Mascarpone, persimmon jelly, coffee meringue and more of those incredible white truffles. Or menu influences appear from the far south with Sicilian cassata gelato with whipped ricotta, cherry coulis and meringue.
At his restaurant in the InterContinental in London, celebrity chef Theo Randall’s famous cappelletti are stuffed with slow-cooked veal, pancetta and porcini mushrooms, while his ravioli con cime di rapa are al dente pouches of ricotta and silky turnip greens in a bath of sage butter.
There’s no better way to follow his rich, Tuscan-style pan-fried calf’s liver with sage, pancetta, black cabbage and lentils than by ordering a light-as-air Sicilian-style ricotta cheesecake with Marsala and vanilla pears. With dishes like these, it’s no wonder that the chef’s eponymous fine dining destination has won several awards.
But it’s his recently added once-a-month regional menus that are attracting inquisitive eaters. His Piedmont dinner menu starts with artichokes, Romanesco broccoli, carrots, Swiss chard and peppers to dip in pungent anchovy and garlic bagna cauda. Next comes Barolo braised beef with porcini mushrooms and soft polenta. And to end, a Hazelnut tart with Frangelico ice cream inspired by Turin, the birthplace of Gianduja.
© Kate Previte
Mario Batali’s one-Michelin-Star restaurant in New York – and the only Italian restaurant in the city to be awarded a four-star review by The New York Times is consistently voted one of the top Italian restaurants in the country. It’s clear why, when lunch “primi”, first courses, include creative pasta dishes like bauletti (stuffed purses of Roman sheep’s milk ricotta with black truffle butter) and cappellacci (“bishop’s hats”) with sweet potato, toasted sage and crumbled brutti ma buoni (“ugly but good” traditional cookies from Prato, in central Italy).
The stuffed artichoke “secondo” or main course comes with a Roman-style spring vegetable stew while the Tuscan cacciucco soup is prepared Livorno-style with a mix of fish and seafood in honour of the port city on the Ligurian Sea. Though the dish is usually made with whatever’s left at the bottom of the fisherman’s net after the more valuable catch has been sold, the generous serving of lobster in Del Posto’s rich, tomato broth is serious fine dining fare. The garlic bread crostini and kelp cured cod that come with it are the perfect balance of new-school Italian comfort food and old-school Japanese technique. For dessert, don’t miss the almond sbrisolona, Mantova’s crumbly polenta cookie, served with concord grapes and topped with rosemary and fior di latte gelato.
Alessandro Pavoni’s “Trip Through Italy” tasting menu at Ormeggio at The Spit north of Sydney in Australia is all regional fare with whimsical twists. The celebrity chef’s Piedmont vitello tonnato is actually a bite-size polenta taco of veal tartare with anchovy, tuna mayonnaise emulsion and purslane. The Emilia Romagna inspired eggplant Parmigiana turns out to be a mouthful of confit eggplant with tomato powder, buffalo mozzarella cream and basil emulsion. The risi e bisi, a simple rice and beans dish from Venice, is dressed up with southern calamari and al dente Carnaroli risotto. And the Tuscan suckling pig comes with salsa verde to complement the juicy meat and crispy skin of the porchetta. The deconstructed apple strudel – the quickest roundtrip flight to the northern Trentino-Alto Adige region – is all sweet-and-sour apple pieces, paper-thin cinnamon-dusted pastry shards, creamy custard, baked apple sorbet with crunchy crumble on top.