Does the appeal of Italian food lie in the satisfying crunch of a skinny pizza marinara topped with a sensory combination of tomatoes, garlic and olive oil? Or the contrast of a silky risotto that caresses the oesophagus while the taste buds are still savouring the umami hit of an accompanying osso buco? Perhaps it’s the high of smearing a wodge of stracciatella on to a juicy, balsamic-flecked tomato, or the comforting embrace of freshly made pasta?
The answer may be different for each of us, but the universality of Italian food is clear from the way a new restaurant seems to pop up in your Instagram feed every week. Whether it’s the lifestyle, the cultural associations or a desperate, hipsterised desire to return to authenticity, Italian food seems to be having a moment.
A quick Google News search threw up no less than a dozen new international openings — outside Italy — in the first two weeks of August alone. And that’s not counting the UAE, which will have seen six new Italian restaurants — licensed and not — opening over the course of 2017.
“There will never be enough good Italian restaurants in Dubai,” declares Maxime Le Van, the man calling out the tickets at Via Veneto over in Business Bay. “I just love the simplicity in the cooking and focus on quality raw ingredients, I could easily enjoy it every day.” The fact that he’s not Italian but Belgian goes a long way to prove my hypothesis.
But enough philosophy (even though no Italian meal is complete without it), let’s get to the meat of the matter, pronto! Below are three new home-grown Italian concepts, handpicked for your degustazione.
The restaurant: Via Veneto Osteria e Cucina
What it is: A homegrown all-day dining concept with an extravagant facade that immediately raises expectations, Via Veneto has big shoes to fill if it is to emulate the successes of Gates Hospitality stablemates such as Bistro Des Arts and Folly by Nick and Scott. But as Head Chef Maxime Le Van says, the brand doesn’t take itself too seriously. So diners can expect all the Italian signatures, but updated in a reflection of this globalised, multicultural city we call home.
Chef Maxime Le Van
“The difference with Via Veneto is that I am not Italian myself, so the food is an interpretation on Italian fare, but using past experiences in very different concepts and cuisines to develop the dishes, which I believe brings variety to familiar Italian dishes,” says Le Van.
There are two levels, a Cucina and terrace on the ground floor with an open kitchen, and an osteria or bar with the obligatory Burj Khalifa view above.
Homemade Spaghetti with prawns, squids, mussels and clams.
The food: Le Van and his team are bang on trend with menu items such as homemade artisanal pasta in unusual shapes and three options for its wood-fired pizzas, ranging from the classic thin white crust to the gluten-light pinza and a whole wheat base. “The pizzas were the most complex to develop because of all the variables we encountered while trying to get the perfect crust. Dough is a living ingredient that gets affected in many ways by the environment. We use our own culture of sour starter as leavening agent, and it took us a lot of trial and error before reaching the recipes we have today,” Le Van says.
The menu also features classics such as Eggs in Purgatory (Italian-style shakshouka) and Waffle all’ Anatra, or savoury waffles with duck confit and caramelised apple preserves for breakfast, and for dinner, my personal favourites, marinated grilled octopus, and chargrilled flank steak with charred onions and grilled lettuce.
Do order: The Caprese salad, an up-to-date take on the staple of buffalo mozzarella and stracciatella, paired with seasonal heirloom tomatoes, taggiasche olives and a smidge of olive oil and herbs.
Where: Downtown Dubai
PASTA LA VISTA
The restaurant: Ravioli & Co
Chef Eros Brambilla.
What it is: Fresh pasta made inhouse every day is the signature proposition here. Ravioli & Co opens its doors in the DIFC area later this month. Although the pillowy treats could well comprise an entire menu by themselves, there’s a lot more on offer, including tortellini, tagliatelle and gnocchi. The licensed concept, launched by a pair of girlfriends from Italy and Jordan, aims to reboot the concept of traditional Italian food in the UAE — complete with inhouse pasta lady.
Antipasto to share.
The food: Executive Chef Eros Brambilla wants to offer famiglia-style food, “made by the best ingredients sourced locally and Italian delicacies provided by the best suppliers. Recipes that [recreate] my grandma’s traditional dishes,” he told Gulf News tabloid! via email. “Let people discover the simplicity of Italian food.”
Brambilla, who trained at the three-Michelin-starred Da Vittorio in Bergamo, was involved with the concept from the start, working alongside Khulood Khouri and Greta Canevese to bring the restaurant to life. “Italian food is not all about pasta and pizza; you can travel for an entire year from North to South and taste every day a different dish. I wish that all the clients coming to eat to Ravioli&Co experience this journey,” he says.
Plus there’s an inhouse bakery, which claims to show diners what focaccia and grissini are meant to taste like. Low-calorie and gluten-free pasta varieties are available, as are vegetarian-friendly menu items, whatever those might be.
Do order: Their signature dish, the eggplant gnocchi with fresh tomato sauce.
Where: Burj Daman, DIFC
A HAT IN THE RING
The restaurant: Tortellini
What it is: The lovechild of Amany Osman and her husband Khaled, Tortellini in Business Bay has been quietly drawing local residents and walk-ins from nearby hotels with its bijou interiors and fresh pasta since a soft opening a few months ago. “We are looking to differentiate Tortellini by offering our customers an experience of dining on the streets of Bologna in a casual setting,” Amany says.
The couple, who are both interior designers, were inspired by the city of Bologna, Italy’s gastronomic capital, during a work visit. They encountered tortellini late one night, Amany says, after all the restaurants were closed when they met a chef at their hotel in the lobby. After some persuasion, he opened up his kitchen and cooked them tortellini, “which we absolutely fell in love with,” she says. The ring-shaped pasta originates in Bologna and is filled with meat or cheese and herbs. It is eaten both in broth, like wontons or dumplings, or in a chunky sauce.
The food: Naturally, tortellini is on the extensive menu, which also features more common pastas and some unusual pizzas, as well as other Italian soups, antipasti, meat and seafood. “I have worked very closely with our chefs to handpick the Italian ingredients, develop the menu and ensure we are offering a wide variety of options for our customers,” she says. There are options for vegetarians, as well as organic items, and a selection of healthy choices.
Filetto di manzo (Grilled beef tenderloin, served with mixed vegetables.
Do try: The tortellini, which is handmade inhouse every day. Or the Mele e Noci pizza, topped with mozzarella cheese, walnuts, chopped onion and apple slices.
Where: Blue Bay Tower (next to the Steigenberger Hotel), Business Bay
—Keith J Fernandez loves to eat but his gluten intolerance and ongoing battle with the bulge have forced him to take a closer look at what he puts into his mouth.
Gluten-free Italian is a thing
Avoiding gluten is a fine Italian tradition
I avoided Italian restaurants for years because I didn’t like pasta — or so I thought. Even when I was diagnosed as gluten-intolerant and knew to ring restaurants in advance and volubly demand gluten-free options, I’d skip right past the Italian. (The only Dubai restaurant to ever refuse to serve me, though, was a Southern American concept, although one chef did lecture me for coming to a tasting but not ordering the pasta.)
Over the years, however, UAE restaurants have begun to take notice of gluten problems — none more so than the Italian osterias and trattorias setting up branches here. I was gobsmacked when in early 2014, I turned up to a press lunch at the Shangri-La Dubai branch of Naples’ two-Michelin-starred Don Alfonso, and the restaurant manager came out and showed me the pasta they’d bought in for me, and explained that I’d be served a variation of everyone else’s plate because this particular shape mopped up the sauce differently.
I later found out that thanks to their symbiotic relationship with wheat, Italians understand gluten-free diets better than most and families with diagnosed coeliacs get a government allowance of €140 (Dh604) per month.
So the next time you’re headed to an Italian restaurant in Dubai, ask ahead for ‘senza glutine’ dishes — and if they can’t provide them, vote with your wallet and go somewhere else.
Risotto Zucca E Porcini recipe (Risotto with pumpkin and porcini mushrooms)
Courtesy Eros Brambilla, Ravioli & Co | Serves 2
• 2 tbsp olive oil
• 1 clove garlic
• 50g porcini mushrooms, thinly sliced
• 80g butternut squash (about half a cup), peeled and cubed
• 50g butter
• 2 tsp chopped onion
• 200g carnaroli rice
• 1l vegetable stock, heated
• 50g Parmigiano
1. In a saucepan over a medium flame, add the olive oil, garlic and porcini and cook for five minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
2. Drizzle the squash with some olive oil, season with salt and pepper and place on a baking tray. Cover with foil and bake at 180°C for 30 minutes or until the pumpkin is soft. Then mash it with a fork.
3. To make the risotto, melt half of the butter in a pan on medium-high heat. Add the chopped onion and sauté until soft, add the rice and stir for a few minutes. Pour in a quarter of hot stock. Turn down to a simmer, stirring often with a wooden spoon until the rice has absorbed all the liquid.
4. After 10 minutes, add the porcini mushroom and the mashed pumpkin and continue to cook for 6 to 8 minutes, adding the remaining stock. The risotto should start to become creamy and tender.
5. Remove from the stove and set aside. Add the cheese and remaining butter to finish, stir again and cover for two minutes. Serve.