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Savory Italian Fare in Southeast Asia

January 27, 2014

If a trip to Italy is not in your immediate plans, a handful of menus around Asia offer the next best thing. By Christopher Kucway

Published on Jan 27, 2014

Pino Lavarra tends to get excited when speaking about his menu at Tosca (Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, International Commerce Centre, 1 Austin Rd. West, Hong Kong; +852 2263 2270; On this, the day before the two-Michelin-star chef heads home to Puglia on vacation and after the crush of lunch, his energy levels are double. First off: pizza with his family in the south of Italy. Yes, the basics are as popular in Italy as they are around the world. What has changed, at least in Asia, is that a handful of top Italian menus focus specifically on ingredients from a particular region. Call it Italian food as Italians eat. Tosca at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong is but one example.

“I believe that southern Italy is still unspoiled, so when I put something on a plate it might look contemporary but the real taste comes from the south,” Lavarra tells me high above Hong Kong. “When you see any dish here, everyone asks, ‘Is this Italian?’ When they taste it, they know it is.” A perfect example is his spaghetti alla chitarra with baby squid. The dish is wrapped in swordfish paper—tender, wafer-thin sheets of sashimi—lending it a vaguely Vietnamese feel, but the black olive oil lets your palate know this is purely Italian. Says Lavarra: “It’s a game. We’re still talking about the same ingredients, but they’re put together in a different way.” That explains the Mediterranean red prawn carpaccio that lends a briny flavor to Lavarra’s Sea Tiramisù dish. Not everything on his menu is a mystery though: the Mediterranean tuna in a caper sauce looks and tastes like it could only come from the waters off the Italian coast.

Skip to Bangkok and immediately to a dessert that any chocolate lover cannot miss. At JoJo (159 Rajadamri Rd., Bangkok; +662 207 7815; in the St. Regis, you’ll find Gobino chocolate flown in from Piedmont. The triangle-shaped hazelnut chocolate, whose recipe dates back to Napoleonic times, is given all the fanfare of a quality cheese cart, sliced into thin pieces at your table and topped with a vanilla sauce and fresh berries. A serving is of this delicacy is easily shared but it’s best to phone ahead for this melt-in-your-mouth experience. The lunch menu at JoJo is defined as rustic Italian, while dinner is a more elegant affair.

New to Singapore, Buona Terra (29 Scotts Rd., Singapore; +65 6733 0209; chef Denis Lucchi is touching now on the Italian regional theme with an authentic tasting menu from different areas of Italy on six scheduled nights until March. Next up is Calabria and Puglia on October 8, with Tuscany, Veneto, Piedmont, and Lombardy and Emilia Romagna to follow in the months ahead. 


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