Pasta, pizza and tiramisu? Italian food is so much more, say four chefs in Hong Kong who are redefining our understanding of the country's cuisine

tiramisu, Neapolitan pizza, lobster, panettone, Roland Schuller, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Antimo Merone is sitting in the private dining room at his popular restaurant Estro, in Hong Kong’s Central district, trying to explain a seeming contradiction.

On the one hand, Italy is a young country – it was formed in 1861 to unite what was previously a collection of fractured states – and there was no national cuisine to speak of. Major differences existed in the food from region to region, and even between households.

Dishes such as pasta carbonara and tiramisu (which non-Italians automatically associate with Italian food) are relatively modern inventions. And yet the cuisine appears bound by unofficial rules, with many restaurants worldwide featuring the same rustic, stuck-in-time dishes.

Merone cites pasta carbonara as an “emblematic” example – it must be made with egg, guanciale (cured pork cheek), cheese and dried pasta. Nothing else.

tiramisu, Neapolitan pizza, lobster, panettone, Roland Schuller, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Chef Antimo Merone from Estro in Central. Photo: Jonathan Wong

“Certain things are so strongly part of our tradition that we must do it this way, because it touches our heart,” says Merone, who attended a culinary school run by Gualtiero Marchesi, a chef considered the father of modern Italian cuisine.

Meddling with a recipe can cause conniptions. “We are very strict on that, which for me, is a bit of nonsense … everyone is free to do whatever they want in terms of creations, as long as you respect the ingredients.”

tiramisu, Neapolitan pizza, lobster, panettone, Roland Schuller, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Estro is one of the hottest openings of 2021 in Hong Kong. Photo: Jonathan Wong

You won’t find carbonara (which hails from central Italy) at Estro, one of the hottest openings of 2021 in Hong Kong. Instead, Merone is on a mission to elevate to fine-dining status the food of his home city of Naples and that of southern Italy, much of it born from cucina povera, or cooking of the poor.

He’s part of a wave of chefs in Hong Kong redefining our understanding of Italian cuisine. For Merone, it’s an opportunity to develop his style of regional cooking.

“Southern Italian food is rustic, homey and comforting, it is something that’s in my heart,” he says. But it’s also more than just Neapolitan pizza. “There’s room for a restaurant like this to serve refined food, to take the essence of Neapolitan cooking, and make it sharp and sophisticated.”

tiramisu, Neapolitan pizza, lobster, panettone, Roland Schuller, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

White bonito and buffalo ricotta, capers, olives from Estro in Central. Photo: Jonathan Wong

An outstanding example is his Genovese ragu, a classic that is simplicity on a plate. Instead of following tradition and cooking the living daylights out of everything at once, the star ingredient, Montoro onions, are cooked overnight without meat or water. Merone prepares beef short rib the next day. He slices the meat thinly and adds it to the ragu, by now a melted pool of sweet, savoury and earthy deliciousness that clings to curly ribbons of pasta.

By using the best ingredients and an updated cooking technique, Merone has created a dish that feels at home in the chic surrounds of Estro yet recalls the Naples of the chef’s childhood, when families would gather for grandmother’s Sunday meal.

According to Merone, “what we’re trying to do here is not progressive or innovative”. Instead, he uses the term “sophisticated” repeatedly to describe Estro’s food.

tiramisu, Neapolitan pizza, lobster, panettone, Roland Schuller, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Chef Andrea Zamboni of Radical Chic at International Commerce Centre, West Kowloon. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

At Radical Chic, head chef Andrea Zamboni has no doubt that his is an innovative Italian dining destination. The minimalist, gallery-like space on the 101st floor of the International Commerce Centre, in West Kowloon, has spectacular views of Victoria Harbour and the city skyline.

“You don’t just come to fill your belly at a restaurant like this, you want an experience,” says Zamboni, whose artful combinations are a match for the setting. “Since I was a kid, I was not happy to abide by the rules.”

For him, it’s about thinking outside the box and taking risks. “Sometimes it doesn’t work, but many times it does,” as is the case with lobster, a fine-dining staple, paired with persimmon and hazelnut.

tiramisu, Neapolitan pizza, lobster, panettone, Roland Schuller, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Radical Chic has spectacular views of Victoria Harbour and the city skyline. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

“It’s not a match you find often,” Zamboni says, but is true to Italy, using ingredients commonly grown there. “Everything we put in a dish has a reason. We don’t use lobster just because it sells, but because it has a human side and it tells a story.”

He cautions, however, that chefs need to know the basics before subverting any rules, something he learned from Marchesi.

“Marchesi, the greatest chef I worked with, always said ‘If I’m a good master, you will not see a dish that you made with me on your own menu’,” recalls Zamboni. Instead, chefs should take account of their surroundings and their personal stories to develop their own style of cooking.

tiramisu, Neapolitan pizza, lobster, panettone, Roland Schuller, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Astice blu, nocciole Piemontesi e tartufo bianca from Radical Chic. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

To do this, Zamboni harnesses technology, which he says empowers chefs to cook in new ways. He loves the Thermomix, an all-in-one kitchen appliance, and the Gastrovac, which allows him to cook foods at low temperatures, thus preserving the colour, texture and flavour of ingredients.

“Tech changes what is possible,” he says, as he zaps a cupful of dough in the microwave oven for his dessert of deconstructed panettone – a traditional festive bread – that will have purists crying sacrilege. Within seconds, Zamboni pulls out fluffy hot bread, over which he sprinkles a mix of candied citrus, almonds, raisin jelly and a dollop of honey ice cream. It’s a delicious variation that should convert the sceptics.

The restaurant offers two distinct menus: “Radical” for the adventurous; and “Chic”, to please traditionalists, with comforting dishes such as a creamy chestnut soup elevated to a fine-dining affair. That way, “I can come with my mother, and we can both still enjoy the atmosphere, service and ingredients, which is my first concern”.

tiramisu, Neapolitan pizza, lobster, panettone, Roland Schuller, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Bjoern Alexander (left) and Roland Schuller at Octavium in Central. Photo: Dickson Lee

Old and new have joined forces to great effect at Octavium in Central. The restaurant, backed by Umberto Bombana, of the three-Michelin-star 8½ Otto e Mezzo in Hong Kong, has two German-born chefs at the helm – Roland Schuller and Bjoern Alexander.

Schuller, a three-decade veteran of the city’s restaurant scene, and Alexander, who arrived in 2011, collaborate closely to create dishes that may not be obviously Italian, but channel the soul of Italian food.

Among them is a sensational starter of braised abalone wrapped in meltingly soft veal tendon, with an intensely savoury chicken jus. Schuller says it was inspired by Hong Kong, but he contends it’s also Italian, because abalone is found on the Amalfi coast and veal tendon is popular in Venice.

tiramisu, Neapolitan pizza, lobster, panettone, Roland Schuller, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Abalone at Octavium. Photo: Dickson Lee

The two chefs make a double act that both say brings out the best in each other. When the restaurant opened in 2017, Schuller was working with an Italian chef, but the food failed to excite the city’s fickle eaters. He brought Alexander on board in 2020 to help him modernise the menu.

“We made bold decisions to raise prices, decrease portions, update the presentation, make the menu smaller, but use the best ingredients and increase the quality of the food,” says Alexander. People could see the improvements, and the restaurant is now booked solid daily.

Contemporary doesn’t mean fussy, however. Alexander believes that working with Schuller, his cooking is now “less wild, more straight up, concentrating on flavour”.

He cites, as an example, a dish that features just two key ingredients – aged pigeon and pumpkin – as a lesson in simplicity. It’s also technically accomplished, the just-cooked pigeon meat topped with pigeon mousse, then wrapped in pumpkin flower and accompanied by pumpkin tempura.

tiramisu, Neapolitan pizza, lobster, panettone, Roland Schuller, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Aged pigeon at Octavium. Photo: Dickson Lee

For all their creativity, Schuller and Alexander believe in giving diners what they want. “People don’t come to Octavium for tiramisu or spaghetti Bolognese, but if they ask for it, we will give it to them,” says Alexander, and it will be of the highest order. That said, most customers expect the unexpected.

“I don’t think there are boundaries, and we can do anything here,” he says.

All four chefs agree that patrons are more open to experiential dining than before. For Merone, compared to Italy, “Hong Kong gives me more freedom, and the best scenario to express my culture, my roots and memories, and what I want to do right now.”

Estro, 2/F, 1 Duddell Street, Central, reservations at sevenrooms.com/experiences/estrohk or at reservations@estro.hk

Radical Chic, 101/F, International Commerce Centre, 1 Austin Road West, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 3618 7880

Octavium, 8/F, One Chinachem Central, 22 Des Voeux Road Central, Central, tel: 2111 9395

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