SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Why do people keep opening Italian restaurants in Singapore? I don't know. Maybe there are a lot of Italian chefs to go around. Maybe each of them thinks they can cook Italian better than other Italian chefs in town.
You hear that a lot: "So-and-so doesn't know how to cook proper Italian food - they're just bluffing Singaporeans who don't know any better."
So you get this whole circle of Italian chefs who keep trying to prove they can do better than their compatriots, while we Singaporeans jump from one to another trying to convince ourselves that one is better than the other.
The conclusion? They really are more or less the same, and we gravitate to one or another depending on how much we like a particular chef's cooking style and personality, and quality of the ingredients used.
The latest two entrants to the Italian food scene do little to change the above perception, and differ only in that one is independent and the other is housed in a five-star hotel.
20 Craig Road #01-03
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Fri: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm. Sat: 6pm to 10.30pm. Closed on Sun.
Perbacco takes up a good-looking space in Craig Road, just next door to Spanish eatery Binomio on one side and stalwart Pasta Brava on the other. Wooden wine case covers make an eye-catching wall feature outside and continue inside as the dominant decor theme of this spacious eatery. It's designed to attract a big-spending corporate crowd, which you can tell because you're repeatedly asked throughout your meal if you want some wine to replace your, uh, warm water.
Chef Marco Violano is no newbie to Singapore - the Puglia-born chef first came to work at The Regent's Basilico restaurant in 2008 and most recently Otto Locando. In between, he ran his own restaurant PepeNero.
With that resume you expect a little more than just the serviceable cooking that comes out of Perbacco's kitchen. Perhaps we didn't pick the right dishes or we weren't recommended the right things, but somehow, something in each dish would get in the way of our enjoyment.
It's like eating food with at least one disgruntled ingredient. The razor clams, shrimp and scallops in the nicely composed insalata mista (S$28) or Mediterranean seafood salad probably waited till they were just past their prime before allowing themselves to be tossed in dressing and laid on a bed of greens.
Our set lunch (S$35) ingredients are a little more cooperative in turn. Chopped beef tenderloin tartare dressed in Sicilian dressing and egg yolk sauce has a pleasant slinky mouth feel, and grilled kurobuta pork cheek is surprisingly tender and sits on a bed of seared artichokes - a nice touch.
On the other hand, an ala carte home made squid ink pasta (S$24) has a nice bite but not-so-nice sauce marred further by an angry sea urchin which decides to unleash its funkiness on its long-suffering scallop colleague.
A pan roasted beef tenderloin (S$32) has flavour but needs a good chew, and a more palatable truffle-scented sweet potato cake. The tantalising-sounding trio of ice cream with soft milk bread roll (S$18) is instead sabotaged by fluffy rolls that must have hidden in a dehydrator to escape being eaten.
Obviously, it's still in the throes of teething problems, but if the chef can iron out all the little inconsistencies and raise his game, Perbacco could be a place where the food is as good as the decor.
Orange Grove Road
All day dining. Lunch: 12pm to 3pm; Dinner: 6pm to 10.30pm
Meanwhile, another Marco takes the helm at Waterfall Ristorante in the Shangri-La, where the poolside cafe has been given an upscale Italian makeover.
South Italian chef Marco De Vincentis helps to lift predictable hotel cafe fare a notch with a lineup of ribsticking fare from pizzas to pastas that won't win any competitions but shows credible effort.
A wide spread makes the S$48 lunch buffet seriously tempting but we're won over by the sight of the pizzas at another table.
A thin crust dough with puffed up edges passes muster with a draping of cheese and sour cherry tomatoes in the Margherita (S$21), while its insalata di mare or seafood salad (S$23) boasts fresher ingredients than Perbacco but with a sharper acidic dressing. If we could have this freshness and Perbacco's better balanced dressing, we'd be happy.
The same funky sea urchin finds its way into the rich creamy Spaghettoni Ricci (S$29), although the thick tomato sauce that doesn't believe in the "less is more" mantra manages to mitigate it.
A little more sophistication can be found in the Porchetta Sarda (S$35), where chef De Vincentis bothers to take the little ribs of suckling pig, stuff them with a minced meat farce and fashion them into lamb-like chops. In fact, we almost insist they got our order wrong, until we cut into the distinctively porky, slightly dry chops.
The torta caprese (S$16) is an intensely chocolatey lava cake-like dessert but without the molten chocolate.
This flourless chocolate cake is made with ground almonds, and you might want to ask them to replace the lemon curd and sorbet with plain vanilla ice cream unless you're partial to the mouth-puckering accompaniment.
With two Marcos adding to the scene, the line of Italian restaurants in Singapore continues unabated. Will all this quantity end up in more quality somewhere down the road? Bring on the next plate of pasta - it's going to be a long road.
This article was first published on April 13, 2015.
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