Piz­zas with a pizazz

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HK | CULTURE -

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.

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