From pizza and pasta to ravioli and risotto, Italian food is known for its flavour combined with the feeling of comfort. Here we take an in-depth look at the globally loved cuisine with three of the best Italian venues across the country.
How popular is Italian cuisine in the Middle East?
Luca Napoleone, sous chef, Vespa: I think that Italian cuisine is very popular in the Middle East. There is an Italian restaurant in almost every city, hotel or resort which means people like it and the demand is always high.
Marco Pistillo, chef de Cuisine, Verso: The dining demand is determined by a strong expansion of travellers from the UAE to popular destinations in Europe, including Italy. Abu Dhabi customers have become accustomed to Italian cuisine when frequenting restaurants abroad, exposing them to rich fresh flavours. This means that the Abu Dhabi consumer has a preference for Italian cuisine, served in a simple traditional way.
Fulvio Opalio, head chef, Il Borro Tuscan Bistro Dubai: Italian cuisine in the Middle East is very popular, as much as anywhere else in the world. It’s a culinary institution abroad, unlike many other cuisines.
How would you describe authentic Italian cuisine?
Napoleone: I would describe the Italian cuisine as healthy and light. This is due to the fact that the ingredients used in the Italian cuisine are healthy and light. The same ingredients are also used in the Mediterranean diet.
Pistillo: The market’s desire for authentic concepts is rapidly growing, especially in the capital. Our take on the cuisine, is the use of simple and flavourful ingredients that take people back to Italy’s strong culture and heritage and that is why we use our Nonna recipes. When we speak about the art of food, we don’t only emphasise products from Italy, but also add a dash of passion of the Italian way of life, embracing the richness of our history and traditions.
Opalio: Authentic Italian cuisine is your childhood and roots. It’ s the passing down of secrets generation by generation. It’ s the simplest way of cooking.
What is your hero dish and why?
Napoleone: My hero dish is risotto because I can prepare it in many ways with the best fresh ingredients from fish and meat to vegetables.
Pistillo: My hero dish is pasta with meatballs, which reminds me of my childhood. In fact, every Sunday, like an untouchable tradition, my family used to prepare this dish for everyone.
Opalio: I grew up having Pasta e Fagioli every week which was cooked by my father, a very good cook. It’ s a very rich dish with few ingredients. I remember my dad used to make it whenever he didn’t really know what to cook for us. Until now, I always keep beans at home in case I want to have this soup and remember those days.
Have you adapted Italian cuisine to suit local tastes?
Napoleone: No, Italian cuisine is known for its authenticity. I believe that people like it for this reason and don’t think I need to adapt it to suit the local taste, however, sometimes I change a few ingredients for special requests to make the guest happy.
Pistillo: Every detail is taken into consideration and has been designed to suit this cosmopolitan and diverse market, whilst we keep the original taste. The menu at Verso features high quality Italian food, with top-notch service set to tantalise all the senses.
Opalio: Yes, of course I have. The most important thing is to make my customer happy and not to work with the ego. Here at Il Borro Tuscan Bistro, we have regular meetings and team discussions to understand what the market wants and what the people are looking for over the seasons and we try to suit all the tastes at our best. Flexibility is the key.
What are the key trends emerging in Italian cuisine in the region?
Napoleone: I think that everyone is trying to stay up-to-date with the latest trends in the market but at the same time I see that the most requested dishes in Italian cuisine in 2018 are the same traditional dishes that were popular in 1970.
Pistillo: I believe that fire oven pizza is an emerging trend in this region that would continue to gain popularity. Awareness of healthy life and wholesome food has also increased the past years, and the Abu Dhabi population is turning it into a lifestyle. We have an array of options to suit all tastes from healthy and gluten-free to vegetarian.
Opalio: In my opinion, the key is simplicity. Rich in flavour, good looking dishes, but easy to understand for everyone.
Where do you source produce for your menu and what products do you find challenging to source?
Napoleone: The market in the UAE is big. 10 years ago it was a bit difficult to find all the ingredients needed, but now it is easy to find everything. Some of the ingredients might be more expensive than others but I have never faced any issues finding my products.
Pistillo: In this case I have to say that I’m lucky, because in the UAE you can get almost all the products. Majority of our products come directly from Italy so we deliver food of a very high quality. Where possible, we also source high quality local produce like milk, eggs, cream, seasonal fruits, and vegetables. True Italian cooks never eat tomatoes and artichokes out of season, as food is part of the rhythm of life, Italians eagerly await the arrival of seasonal ingredients from mushrooms in the fall to wild strawberries in the spring.
Opalio: It is very easy to find all the products you need in Dubai. There are many suppliers in the market which can provide you with whatever you are looking for. Fresh, organic, and seasonal ingredients are our main requests. A few years back, it was not that easy, we would be struggling to even find good quality of cherry tomatoes, but everything has changed, as the demand of fine products is growing massively. According to the season, we import most of our fruits and vegetables directly from Il Borro farm in Tuscany, our estate, which is also where we source our Il Borro wines, extra virgin olive oil, and many other products from.
How do you see your menu evolving over the next 12 months?
Napoleone: As I said, the Italian cuisine is loved by people because it respects the traditions. It is nice to be up to date with the latest trends in the market, but I am always keen to reflect traditions in every dish.
Pistillo: We always stay strongly connected to our original roots, with the inclusion of other dishes relevant for each season.
Opalio: We constantly listen to our customers to understand what we can introduce on our menus. The market makes the request and we match it with our philosophy.
What does the future hold for Italian cuisine in the region?
Napoleone: I can see that the Italian cuisine will expand in the future because people know what they want and we know what to give them.
Pistillo: I think that the future for Italian cuisine in the region is the interest in traditional family values, which goes back to basics of Italian cuisine. The region and the UAE itself are complex destinations, constantly on the move and under development, architecturally futuristic, and entertainment-driven. With the capital moving towards becoming Middle East’s art hub, the dining scene will follow in its steps inspiring the art of cooking and the art of eating.
Opalio: The accolades that Il Borro Tuscan Bistro has recently won are good signs for all the Italian F&B business in the region, not only for the Italian cuisine itself. Many restaurants will now try to improve and reach a higher level of standard, and I think good competition is always a great chance to grow. Italian cuisine will benefit from that.