Pizzas with a pizazz
Italian cuisine has been popular in Hong Kong since La Taverna opened in 1969. Today worldrenowned brands, known for their distinctive touch in bringing Italian cooking to life, are operating in the city.
There is Nicholini's in Conrad Hong Kong, specializing in northern Italian dishes, for example. Isola in the IFC tower, run by the GAIA Group, offers an excellent buffet, a great cheese board and wide range of Italian wines, many of which not seen elsewhere. The chefs at Angelini in Kowloon Shangri-La make a great zuppa di pesce (fish soup that is very different to the French bouillabaisse). Then there's the Capelli d’Angelo — a dish of angel hair pasta served with Boston lobster, fennel and cherry tomatoes “New York-style Italian” eatery, Carbone, in LKF tower.
All of them, of course, serve pasta. The similarities between pasta and noodles are all too obvious, although records show that while noodles were a staple food during the Han Dynasty (206 BC — 220 AD), pasta in Italy could be traced back only up to a few hundred years, to the 14th century. However, the first reference to pasta found in the Island of Sicily dates back to 1154.
Pasta comes in a variety of shapes and sizes — the superfine angel hair, farfalle (bow ties), fettuccini, spaghetti, pappardelle, cappelletti (little hats), etc. Then there are varieties that benefit from a heavier sauce, such as conchiglie (shells). There are also stuffed pasta varieties, such as ravioli, tortillini and cannelloni that are usually cooked in the oven. There are more than 600 pasta shapes produced worldwide.
Incidentally, Italians eat more than 50 pounds of pasta a year on an average! But you will not see spaghetti and meatballs on village menus — it's not an authentic Italian dish, and you will not find chicken on pasta either!
Most Italians eat pasta at least once a day. Each region and city has its favorites. In Rome, the two classic pasta dishes are: the carbonara (served with eggs and pancetta, which is similar to bacon) and the cacio e pepe (with cheese and pepper).
Today, an antipasti spread served at an Italian restaurant would typically include a cold-cuts platter of salami, mortadella or prosciutto, cheeses and bread. Sometimes fish such as tuna is included. Although the platter usually comes with a slice or two of bread, in Italy the bread is used to “mop up” the extra sauce left on the plate after eating.
When I was making wines in the Latina region of Italy in the late 1980s, we still used a grape crusher that was 100 years old and worked well. Since the time of the ancient Roman Empire, not very much seems to have changed in Italian viticulture, and many traditional practices are still valid.
The lauded writer Pliny the Elder, who famously said, “In vino veritas (in wine there's truth)”, was born in Como — today home to a most highly-esteemed hotel with an excellent wine list. Oddly, there's an American beer brand named after him!
The ancient Romans preferred to drink their wine mixed with water — a practice still seen in the countryside.
The pizza is probably the world’s most visible Italian food. While there are hundreds of topping options to go around and many of them modern-day inventions, the Margherita, made with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, basil leaves, and good olive oil, remains a firm favorite. Legend has it that in June 1890, pizza-maker Raffaele Esposito created the original Pizza Margherita in honor of the Queen of Italy, hence the presence of the three colors on the Italian flag — red tomato, white mozzarella cheese and green basil leaves.
Then pizza made with the same toppings was already popular in Naples in the 1790s, according to the 1830 book, Napoli, contorni e dintorni, written by Riccio. Slices of mozzarella were arranged in a flower shape over tomato sauce, and decorated by basil leaves, thus representing a Margherita, which is an Italian name for a daisy.
And then there are the desserts! But that's for another day!
My favorite Italian restaurants in Hong Kong include Grissini in Grand Hyatt, Al Molo at the Ocean Terminal, Mistral, Angelini, Isola, Sabatini in the Royal Garden, Osteria in Holiday Inn, 208 Duecento Otto and Jamie's Italian by the British star restaurateur Jamie Oliver, who trained with Gennaro Contaldo, a legendary Italian chef.