Life offers you a thousand chances… all you have to do is take one.
Whenever I think of Italy, I think of that Diane Lane film, Under The Tuscan Sun. I feel it encapsulates the crux of what Italy is – things won’t go the way you want it, but when you let your inhibitions go, take life a little less serious, you’ll find that you’ve always had what you wanted.
From Mario Caramella, the former chef patron of Forlino in Singapore, comes In Italy, a casual diner dedicated to serving classic Italian cuisine. Caramella boasts an impressive thirty-year career in the food business, and has worked in countries including Italy, Canada, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Australia, Indonesia and Thailand. The ode to Tuscany is warm and inviting. The decor, inter-spaced with earthen volcanic tones, is predictably and stereotypically rustic, yet it never really descends into the kitsch that places like Spaggeddies and Pasta Fresca exude. Despite Caramella’s immeasurable experience, he has opted to maintain a sparse, bare bones repertoire. Diners who’ve come expecting in ITALY to be served Singapore favorites, Hawaiian pizza and Tiramisu will be in for a rude shock and leave disappointed. Untainted by worldly influences, chef Mario doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, he presents the side of Italy that we don’t see – his Italy.
Perhaps a true classic, antipasto is the forgotten son of Italian cuisine. The word, which means “before the meal” in Italian is the traditional first course. Contrary to popular assumption, fried calamari is not in fact, Italian, but Mediterranean. Traditional antipasto includes olives, mushrooms, anchovies, artichoke hearts, cured meat and cheeses. So, it was only right that chef Mario started off with the most basic – a bread basket, which included one called Gnocco Fritto, or beer bread. To me, the idea of having beer as an ingredient feels more like fluff than anything. Having tried a limited but sufficient variety of beer infused food, including beer battered fish and chips, and beer infused bread for sandwiches, I’ve to say it’s all pretty underwhelming. At various tastings, I often feel obligated to say that the addition of beer gives it an element of depth and bla bla bla, but the truth is, I can’t tell the difference. Wine on the other hand, is a whole different story. True to maintaining traditions, the bread was served with a side of parsley sauce, rather than serving it with some French butter. There was a certain familiarity with the parsley sauce – it was refreshing and rather zesty, which wasn’t unlike the sauces one would find in Greek and Turkish cuisine. Naturally, prosciutto was also served. Drizzled with truffle honey, artichokes and onions, the sweetness of the honey and onions contrasted with the salinity of the meats.
If you only have one antipasto, opt for the Stracciatella. The name does not refer to the Italian egg-drop soup nor does it refer to the ice cream, which is essentially a chocolate chip flavor, but is actually a particular kind of mozzarella made with torn pieces of mozzarella and cream. Sweet and sour stewed eggplant caponata is topped with the soft and light cheese and dazzled with an array of jungle red tomatoes. The different components stack up together well, with each layer enhancing the flavors of the other. Like ratatouille, it’s light and refreshing, and a perfect way to start the meal. My complaint, if there was any, was that the accompanying toast were not as crisp as they should have been, but it’s a minor booboo.
in ITALY’s pasta repertoire, although small, is all-encompassing. From the simple but homely Spaghetti al Dente, which is a vongole pasta to Home Made Tagliatelle served with authentic Bolognese sauce, each one presents a different facet of Italian cuisine. Chef Mario however, decides to surprise us with the Squid Ink Linguine. Served with prawns, bottarga, broccolini, garlic and chili, it is quite literally, one of the best squid ink pastas. And that’s saying something, particularly because I don’t particularly enjoy squid ink pastas. It always felt too gimmicky. The squid ink here, however, gave the pasta a rather intrinsic complexity that elevated the pasta to a royal level.
Where’s Tuscany in all this? The theme central to this regional cuisine is simplicity. Compared to the rigours and rituals that typifies French cuisine, Tuscan is almost primitive and rightfully so – it has peasant origins. This culminates in the quintessentially Tuscan soup, Gran Bollito. Beef, veal, pork, chicken, veal tongue and vegetables are brought into a boil and presented with a selection of parsley sauce, sweet and sour tomato sauce, mustard and horseradish. My dining partner this evening, Andre and I thought that by the name, it’d be a real meat fest. However, contrary to our assumption, it was, in fact, a rather manageable portion, and went down easily despite the multiple courses we had earlier. Very traditional and very rustic, the Gran Bollito evoked a very homely and hearty sensation that was immediately comforting.
I was in Italy.