Recent years have seen a surge in high-quality pasta restaurants offering diners a taste of authentic Italian cuisine.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY DINAH GARDNER
When Chiara Colognola arrived in Taipei 11 years ago as an exchange student, she quickly started missing the food of her home country. So when a local friend invited her for dinner at an Italian restaurant, she was excited to go.
But when she took her first mouthful, she was horrified.
“It was awful,” she says. “The flavors were just so sweet, and there was a touch of something… ugh! I obviously don’t remember what I ate, but I remember it being just… not Italian. It looked more like noodles than pasta.”
In the following months, owners of night market stalls selling yidali mian (意大利麵, Italian noodles) would come under fire from Colognola, who would tell them that what they were selling wasn’t Italian food. “I was so mad,” she says with a laugh. “That was at the beginning. Later I understood and calmed down.”
For many years, Taipei residents looking to enjoy good homemade pasta had few options. Long considered a cheap and cheerful Western food option, pasta was boiled until it reached what Taiwanese call a “Q” (chewy) texture. Sauces were watery and sweet or overly milky, and flavors were on the blander side.
But to Colognola’s relief, all that has changed. As Taipei has grown increasingly cosmopolitan, the Italian restaurant scene has undergone a transformation. Italian chefs have arrived and opened their own establishments, such as La Locanda, La Mole Taipei, and Bodega del Vin. Colognola goes so often that she views their owners as friends.
An essential part of offering authentic Italian cuisine is using the right equipment and ingredients, explains Colognola, who worked for an Italian restaurant in Taipei about eight years ago. At that time, she was tasked with helping the owner source flour, vegetables, and meats from Italy. Colognola and the owner went so far as to plant a small garden, where they grew vegetables and garnishes like zucchini and Italian basil. Colognola now works as a fitness instructor and, for health reasons, only eats pasta on cheat days.
“It was cool when restaurants like La Piola, La Mole, and La Locanda started making their own fresh pasta,” she says. “The machines weren’t available before.” Now, restaurants can import flour from Italy and make the pasta themselves, bringing dishes to “the next level because now people could actually have fresh pasta.”
Good pasta, Colognola explains, has to be cooked to the famous Italian al dente standard (hard yet yielding), and it must be salty. She advises those who want to enjoy good Italian food to choose somewhere with an Italian chef where the menu items are not misspelled in Italian (that’s so common here, she says with a laugh) and where each dish is accompanied by a clear explanation of the ingredients. She adds that the most important factor is whether the restaurant comes recommended by an Italian friend.
Building on her suggestions, here is a list of five top Italian restaurants in Taipei focusing on homemade pasta.
The Lasagna Bar
No. 17, Lane 138, Minsheng E. Rd., Section 5, Songshan District, Taipei
Tel: 0965 012-130
This little cubby hole in Taipei’s leafy Songshan District is owned by Giorgio Pappalardo, a Sicilian chef with more than two decades of experience in the business. On an early morning two years ago, Pappalardo woke his wife up to tell her he wanted to open a restaurant focused on lasagna. It was New Year’s Day 2021, and Covid was still raging. Takeaways and deliveries were all the rage.
“Lasagna stays hot for a long time, so you don’t get cold food when it reaches your home,” Pappalardo says. “Besides, everyone likes lasagna.”
The Lasagna Bar is split into two parts. One is a narrow canteen not much wider than a corridor, reflecting its origins as a takeout joint. Since last summer, a sit-down section next door is also open to guests whenever Pappalardo is not hosting a private dining event. The long wooden dining table is made to resemble that of an Italian family kitchen. The display cabinets are stocked with inviting bottles of wine and a host of products, including sauces, olive oils, and cheeses. It would feel cramped if it weren’t for the huge glass windows that light up the space.
I opt for the vegetarian lasagna, one of the six types on offer. Others include beef and pork, shrimp and calamari, and mushroom and chicken. The lasagna arrives about 20 minutes later, burn-your-tongue hot and protected by brown paper. It’s garnished with long curls of peppery rocket. I wait for it to cool before wolfing it down quickly. The pasta sheets are soft, and the sauce has a tomato thump as well as cheesy creaminess. It’s hearty and warming.
Pappalardo prefers to use dry pasta for his lasagna. “For my recipe, I actually have a better result using a dry one rather than fresh,” he says. He imports the pasta from Italy along with the cheeses and tomatoes that go in the sauce. Because of Taiwan’s restrictions on certain meat imports, Pappalardo sources meat mostly from Spain. It’s a bit of a compromise as Spanish ham, for example, is a bit drier and saltier than Italian cuts. “But I have no choice.”
The Lasagna Bar’s recipes, he says, are all authentic Italian. Pappalardo has no time for fusion cuisine. “I’m never going to put bamboo shoots in my lasagna… or tofu.”
Salt & Stone
4th Floor, 45 Shifu Rd., Xinyi District, Taipei (located inside Taipei 101)
Tel: (02) 8101-8177
Those in search of an international twist on quality pasta fare should head to Salt & Stone, co-opened in 2018 by Michelin chef Long Xiong (who is also one of the people behind the cheeky Taipei taco eatery Masa). The menu at Salt & Stone, Long explains, is “Californian-inspired Italian.”
Xiong says he decided to open Salt & Stone because until then, “most Italian spots had maybe three options – one ravioli, one gnocchi, and one long pasta.” Other than that, he says, options were limited to Taiwanese-style creative pasta dishes or dishes made from dried pasta. To stand out, Xiong and his team decided to offer a wide selection of dishes made with fresh, handmade pasta.
Tucked away in a corner on the fourth floor of Taipei 101, just next to Louis Vuitton, Salt & Stone has no outside-facing windows, which is a shame in this neon-lit skyscraper neighborhood. But the soft lighting and pleasant gray and wooden color scheme do much to counteract the mall atmosphere.
When our dishes arrive, my dining partner expresses dismay at the modest portion. “I’ll have to go to 7-Eleven after this and fill up on one of their microwave carbonas,” he quips. But both of us “ooh” in appreciation after the first bite. He has the clam linguine with garlic and fennel soubise. “It’s salty and al dente and delicious,” he says.
My pumpkin-hued butternut squash ravioli with brown butter sage is creamy and sweet, almost like a dessert, the softness of the pureed filling and pasta pockets punctuating what tastes like crumbly biscuit bits. In the end, both of us are full – but not so full as to forgo dessert.
No. 18, Alley 52, Lane 12, Bade Rd., Section 3, Songshan District, Taipei
Tel: (02) 2579-2922
When I pressed Colognola for her favorite Italian restaurant, La Locanda was one of her two top choices (La Mole was the other; see below).
Chef and owner Matteo Boschiavo, who hails from Verona, tells me he’s been behind a stove for 32 years; first in Italy and, since 2001, in Taiwan. He’s witnessed the capital’s appetite for pasta evolve over the past two decades.
“There’s been a big revolution in Taipei – they are looking for real Italian food, and that’s what I do here,” Boschiavo says. He adds that La Locanda, which he opened in 2016, would never have worked 20 years ago. Back then, locals wanted Italian food that wasn’t as salty – it was “plain,” he interjects – and that came with way too much garlic. I point to the menu and ask him if people could get the exact same kind of dishes back in Italy. “Yeah,” he says. “But it’s even better here!”
La Locanda’s décor is industrial chic, with brick and gray concrete effect walls and hanging lights that look like miners’ lamps. The glass frontage, which faces a quiet lane, makes the space feel larger than it is. Locanda is an Italian word for an old-time inn, a place offering food and lodging for travelers. There are no lodgings in this inn, but there is plenty of food.
I have the tortellini stuffed with truffle and “Monte Veronese” cheese in butter sage sauce. It comes covered in truffle shavings. The dish has strongly smoky notes, a nutty aftertaste, and a cheesy kick. It’s flavorsome without being overpowering and pairs very nicely with a crisp, chilled white wine.
There are about 10 pasta dishes on the menu, including seafood spaghetti and potato gnocchi tossed with gorgonzola sauce. Boschiavo tells me he also always offers about half a dozen specials, which are crafted depending on the season. While we talk, a regular arrives for her usual order. No main for her; she goes straight for dessert – a tiramisu with a splash of grappa.
Pasta & Co.
No. 9 Nanjing E. Rd., Section 3, Zhongshan District, Taipei
Reservations can be made online at www.pastaco.tw
By far the biggest and busiest of all the pasta restaurants reviewed for this article, Pasta & Co. focuses on American Italian food. For starters, that means huge portions.
At the entrance, just like you can see dumplings being patted into shape at Din Tai Fung, you can observe the fresh pasta being made. Some dough resembling green barnacles extrudes from expensive machinery, while some is manipulated by hand. Another open kitchen, where the final dishes are prepared, is situated further inside.
The airy space is tastefully decorated with lots of clean lines and just a few potted plants, making you feel like you’re visiting IKEA’s classier sibling. The restaurant also contains a grocery section where customers can buy fresh pasta and sauces for home cooking, as well as wines, oils, and condiments.
Founder and Chef Timothy Lu spent a decade working in Michelin-starred kitchens in New York. Pasta & Co’s menu is inspired by his childhood memories of growing up in the city and eating Italian American food, he explains.
Several pasta dishes have also been influenced by East Asian flavors, such as the spicy beef bigoli (a chunky fresh spaghetti-type pasta) with pickled red chili and scallions and the ricotta spinach scarpinocc (a type of ravioli) with crispy rice noodles and cilantro. Lu describes them as “more ‘QQ’ than pillowy soft.” The menu also features a “tea-ramisu,” which, as its name suggests, is a tea-infused version of the classic Italian dessert.
I opt for the green pesto radiatori – the green barnacles I saw being made upon my arrival. Cooked in a brown butter vinaigrette with pistachios and walnuts, it’s rich, creamy, and heavy, with layers of flavor. The food at Pasta & Co is undoubtedly on the heartier side, and you had better come hungry if you want to reach the NT$600 minimum charge per person, as the prices are competitive.
No. 12, Lane 151, Section 2, Jianguo N. Rd., Zhongshan District, Taipei
Tel: (02) 2516-6028
Unlike Salt & Stone, which has a seating time limit, Simone Bussone’s La Mole is designed for slow dining. Bussone says he redecorated his Italian bistro a couple of years ago to offer a more comfortable dining experience focused on unhurried enjoyment of the food and wine selection.
“We want customers to come here for two to three hours,” he says. “There’s no rush.”
Bussone arrived in Taiwan in 2011 and learned his trade working for an Italian restaurant here. He developed his skills quickly, and just a few years later, he helped set up La Piola Cucina Italiana in Taipei. In 2016, feeling that Taiwan could be his second home, he opened his own restaurant.
Located in a quiet alley near Xingtian Temple, La Mole has seating in an outdoor garden, as well as a spacious indoor dining area. The deep-green painted walls with wooden fittings create a relaxing atmosphere; the bar and amply stocked wine fridges glow alluringly.
The PDF menu can only be accessed by scanning a QR code. It’s hard to read it on a phone, but the wait staff is helpful and patient when explaining the dishes. Diners can choose from around half a dozen pasta options. Bussone has bypassed the difficulties of importing meats into Taiwan by buying mostly local meat and curing it himself.
I taste one of his best-selling pasta dishes, the handmade gnocchi alla bavar. Each piece of gnocchi is marshmallow-soft, covered with a sprinkling of hazelnuts, and soaked in a punchy sauce of taleggio, gorgonzola, and Parmigiano cheeses.
It’s good that La Mole encourages slow dining. Servings are generous. “I like to make a feast with the food,” Bussone says with a smile.