Energetic Italian chefs are introducing one of the world’s great cuisines to the Taiwanese capital.
Botega del Vin belies its posh East Taipei location. The restaurant may be situated amid luxury residences a stone’s throw from ZhongXiao East Road, but it feels like a trattoria – a rustic Italian eating establishment that usually caters to a loyal clientele. Trattorias emphasize simple but tasty food and warm, personalized service.
Founder and head chef Giorgio Trevisan, a native of the northern Italian city of Verona, is on a first-name basis with many of his patrons. Clad casually in a sweater and jeans, he moves seamlessly between tables, greeting guests and recommending dishes.
Trevisan speaks some conversational Chinese and excellent English. That’s more than enough to communicate with the well-heeled, mostly locale clientele. There are businesspeople and young couples, as well as groups of young women carefully photographing each dish – and themselves – with iPhone X’s.
Everyone is here for an authentic slice of Italy (although not pizza, which is not served here). “The food we serve is typical of what people eat in my hometown of Verona,” he says. “It’s simple and hearty – and our customers enjoy that.”
A few dishes are made with tomato sauce, which is more characteristic of southern Italy. But outside of Italy you won’t easily find Trevisan’s savory duck tagliatelle with white wine ragu. And there’s a nice local touch: The tender duck meat is sourced from Yilan, Taiwan’s most eminent water fowl-producing region.
Then there’s “Giorgio’s cheesecake,” which I initially tried to wave off. It seemed wise to abstain; I had already enjoyed a sprawling antipasto spread, with everything from grilled vegetables to homemade chicken liver pâté on bread, the duck tagliatelle, and half of my wife’s succulent veal scallop – also cooked in white wine.
But Giorgio wouldn’t take no for an answer, and with good reason. “This is not American cheesecake,” he insists. He’s right. It does not taste like Philadelphia Cream Cheese in a pie crust or sit in the stomach like a brick. Instead, it’s delicate, fluffy, and only a tad sweet – almost like the fresh ricotta in cannoli, a traditional Sicilian pastry.
Italian cuisine in Taipei has come a long way since 1999, when Trevisan first arrived in Taiwan. At the time, there were few authentic Italian restaurants on the island. Italian chefs were rare.
In those days guests complained to Trevisan that their starch dishes were undercooked. “There was no concept of al dente,” he says, referring to the Italian term for noodles or rice cooked to an ideal consistency – one that is firm to the bite. “People expected the pasta or risotto to be as soft it is in Chinese cuisine.”
As more Taiwanese traveled to Italy in the 2000s, they grew more familiar with the food, observes Federico Zocatelli, also a Verona native and owner of Zoca Pizzeria Caffeteria. Zocatelli first came to Taiwan in 2002 and established Zoca in 2010. With more than 40 types of pies available, it has since become an institution among pizza aficionados here.
In the open kitchen in the front of the restaurant, Zocatelli and his team prepare the 10-inch, thin-crust pies in a stone oven. The best choice on the menu might be the zesty Inferno, even if it’s only mildly spicy. Zesty salami, onion, ricotta and chili sit atop tomato sauce, mozzarella, and a wafer-thin crust.
Vegetarians shouldn’t be deterred, though. Not when there are also options like the delicious Italia, a tomato sauce and mozzarella pie topped with ricotta, fresh tomato, and spinach.
Zoca’s style of pizza is somewhere in between Roman and Neapolitan. Roman pizza has a thin to medium-weight crust, which is made with olive oil in addition to water, flour, yeast, and salt. Adding oil makes the crust weightier, crisper, and more flavorful.
“Some people don’t realize that not all authentic Italian pizza is extra crispy,” Zocatelli says. “I can make it that way, but you need to come on the early side, when there’s time to leave it in the oven longer.”
The Italian invasion
Since the global financial crisis, the number of Italian restaurants in Taipei headed by Italian chefs has steadily risen. To be sure, that reflects Taiwanese people’s growing affinity for Italian food.
But the trend also indicates trouble at home. Due to economic difficulties, Italy is experiencing a largescale brain drain. 115,000 Italians moved to another country in 2016, an increase of 9.6% over the year before, according to data compiled by the Italian government.
For ambitious restaurateurs, Italy’s sclerotic bureaucracy is a hindrance, Trevisan says. “It’s slow and costly to open a restaurant in Italy, unless you have the right connections. In Taiwan, you can open a restaurant with just US$30,000, and it doesn’t take long to get things up and running.”
The restaurant industry is also doing well in Taiwan, despite modest overall economic growth. In 2016, Taiwan restaurants posted a record US$14 billion in revenue, according to a February report by English-language Channel News Asia.
Matteo Boschiavo, who also comes from Verona, has worked in Taiwan as a chef since the early 2000s. In July 2016 he opened La Locanda restaurant, which features cuisine from his native Verona as well as other classic Italian dishes.
“Locanda” means “inn” in Italian. Boschiavo chose that name because his restaurant is inspired by the ancient European inns “where poets, travelers, and great thinkers could stop over to relax and taste great local food.”
I recommend Boschiavo’s piquant bucatini all’amatriciana, the famed Roman pasta dish made with tomatoes, black pepper, chili, pecorino cheese (from Amatrice) and guanciale: Italian salt-cured pork cheek. It’s normally only on the lunch menu, but Boschiavo had all the ingredients on hand when I visited for a Sunday dinner. “If you know what you want and don’t see it on the menu, just ask me to make it,” he says. “For many simple dishes, it’s possible.”
His seafood risotto is another must-try. When I visited for lunch, Boschiavo made a large portion served family-style for our party. A tomato-based risotto made with shrimp, squid, and clams, it strikes a chord with the local palate. “The ingredients are all familiar to Taiwanese, and it’s easy to share,” he observes.
In contrast, pasta or rice dishes in Italy are often small because they are served as a course in the meal of an individual diner. A traditional Italian meal includes an antipasto (usually some combination of cured meats, cheeses, and cold vegetables), a pasta or rice dish called a “primo,” meaning “first course,” and then a second course of a meat or fish dish.
Portions are generous – I would say almost American sizes – at Enrico Negrini’s DiVino restaurant, but the flavors are authentically Italian. Chef Negrini, a Roman, is uncompromising on that. “I want people to experience authentic home-style Italian food here,” he says. “For me to serve anything else would be a waste of time.”
Negrini cooks beautifully. His rigatoni with nduja – a spicy spreadable salami from Calabria – and ricotta cheese, served unabashedly al dente, is among the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had. The rich red sauce exudes the pungent flavor of the salami – which Negrini makes himself from scratch.
Working from an open kitchen, Negrini offers a small “chef’s table” from where patrons can observe him cook. It’s the equivalent of sitting at the bar in a restaurant, except that you converse with the chef instead of the bartender. “I like to chat with customers,” he says. “It’s especially good if you know me and you’re coming on your own.”
DiVino even occasionally offers a little Italian wine education. For Thanksgiving, the restaurant featured a four-course tasting menu paired with Ferrari Italian sparkling wine. While all of the pairings were adroit, the second course was inspirational: a mushroom and black truffle risotto matched with a dry sparkling rosé. It was so good I even bought a bottle of the Ferrari Rosé as a souvenir.
Meanwhile, Taipei’s Italian restaurant boom shows no signs of slowing down.
In March, Il Mercato opened with great fanfare in Taipei’s upmarket Tienmu neighborhood, and owner Michael dePrenda appears determined to bring a more refined Italian dining experience to Taipei. He has invested heavily on every aspect of the dining experience, starting with the restaurant interior, which was designed by celebrated architect Michele Bönan. In addition, everything from the tables and chairs to the flooring was imported from Italy to make the ambiance “as authentic as possible,” says dePrenda.
True authenticity is in the food, of course, and dePrenda has gone all out by bringing in 11 chefs from Italy, including Enrico Derflingher, formerly head chef for the UK’s Royal Family and for former U.S. President George H.W. Bush. This team of chefs works closely with the Taiwanese cooking staff, using traditional ingredients both imported from Italy and locally sourced, including from Il Mercato’s own farm.
A recent lunch at Il Mercato featured an appetizer of homemade coppa (Italian ham) with Burrata cheese – similar to Mozzarella, but with a creamy center – from the Puglia region of southern Italy. This was accompanied by a dish of shrimp tartar on a bed of Burrata cheese with bottarga (cured fish roe).
The lasagna was rich and filling, while the thick and chewy cavatelli pasta shells were served with locally caught seafood in a tangy tomato sauce.
Unusually for an Italian restaurant here, Il Mercato has an extensive wine cellar filled with imported Italian wines and overseen by a dedicated sommelier, and dePrenda says that his wines are sold at cost for less than at wine shops.
Lunch was accompanied by a dry white wine that perfectly complemented the meal, plus a delicate sparkling rosé.
With Il Mercato, dePrenda is seeking to create not only a restaurant but a brand that he envisions will encompass a chain of coffee shops, pizza-pasta restaurants, simple trattorias, as well as additional fine-dining establishments. He is also operating a business importing food and wine from Italy and is already selling to some of Taiwan’s top hotels and restaurants.
“We had to import it for ourselves, so we might as well import it for others as well,” he says. “And we have the best prices in town.”
As the number of Italian eateries expands in Taiwan, some might question whether Taiwan has a large enough market to sustain all of them. DePrenda counters that “people always look at Taiwan in the shadow of China, but it’s not a small market.”
He considers Taiwan’s moderate population of 23 million and concentrated geographical area as an advantage that facilitates publicity generation and brand building.
“We are going building a brand and we are going to be everywhere from north to south,” he says, noting that a restaurant will be opened in Kaohsiung early next year.
Despite facing plenty of competition, Mercato may well be successful. After all, Taiwanese diners are becoming passionate – and discerning – about Italian food. To illustrate that point, Botega del Vin’s Trivesan mentions a recent incident in which a customer sent back her risotto for being insufficiently al dente. “She said to me ‘your risotto is overcooked,’” he says. “I wanted to give her a hug.”
Botega del Vin
No. 7, Alley 17, Lane 170, ZhongXiao E. Rd., Sec. 4, Da’an Dist., Taipei
No. 15, Lane 71, AnHe Rd., Sec. 2, Da’an Dist., Taipei
164 ZhongZheng Rd., Sec. 2, Shilin Dist., Taipei
No. 18, Alley 52, Lane 12, BaDe Rd., Sec. 3, Songshan Dist., Taipei
Zoca Pizzeria Caffeteria
No. 3, Lane 69, AnHe Rd., Sec. 2, Da’an Dist., Taipei