Like the Heat? Then Stand in the Kitchen
La Volpaia serves some of Seoul's best pasta and pizza, both of which come out of a surprisingly small kitchen.
Though cramped, the restaurant's cooking space is used economically by five Korean cooks. Three of them are the chefs: Park Su-dol is in charge of pasta, Seo Gi-seok pizza and Yim Seong-gil antipasto. The two others, Choi Beom-jin and Lee Seong-hwan, assist.
According to the owner, Pyon Kyong-ok, the restaurant's recipes are created and regularly updated by a celebrated Tokyo-based Italian chef, Carmine Cozzolino (http://gnavi.joy.ne.jp/GN/En/G088801h.htm). Mr. Cozzolino runs two Italian restaurant chains in Japan, Carmine and La Volpaia, which is named after an Italian town and means "fox village." The chefs at the local La Volpaia have all been trained by Mr. Cozzolino to meet his high standards and success formulas, Ms. Pyon says.
La Volpaia's pasta can please even the most fastidious palates, the owner insists. Its house specialty is vongole, or clam pasta cooked in olive oil and garlic, which is what food critics usually choose when they do assignments on the restaurant.
To watch the kitchen in action is a marvel. A waiter brings in an order for vongole, which the pasta chef Mr. Park picks up. Mr. Park shouts out to one of the assistants, Mr. Choi, who swiftly sets a timer and drops some pasta into a pot of boiling water. How long? Ms. Pyon says that timing is what makes La Volpaia's pasta so great, so it's a secret.
Mr. Park preheats a steel pan, which is scorched black from a full day's use. He puts in a ladleful of extra virgin olive oil and begins to gently shake the pan over the fire. He turns to check on a basket of clams, making sure they are clean and sand-free.
He turns back and puts some chopped garlic in the pan, producing a delightful sizzle. Then he tosses the clams into the now-fragrant oil and covers the pan, as Mr. Choi double-checks the noodles.
A few moments later, Mr. Park lifts the lid. The clams have yawned open, revealing their fatty flesh. With a spoon, Mr. Park samples the clam juice to see how how salty it is. He nods to Mr. Choi, and the assistant shakes the basket into which he had transferred the now-cooked noodles. One, two, three － you notice the two professionals synchronizing their beat. Then Mr. Choi spills the noodles over the clams, and Mr. Park works briskly at mixing them in. A burst of white steam clouds the space. A few seconds later, the pasta glides off the pan and onto to a plate. Presto! Vongole.
Now it's time for the pizza. The pizza chef Mr. Seo is so adept at making the pies you would think he was a native of Naples. First he slices off a hunk of prepared dough for the size of the pizza ordered. He forms it into a ball, then kneads it in his hands before dropping it on a floured cutting board.
Then, amid a flurry of white flour, he puts the dough through the motions: rolling, stretching, flattening. Then he picks it up and swirls it above his head, a foot above his gaze at first, then two feet. The dough, becoming flat and round, repeatedly lands on the chef's deft fingers only to be flung ceilingward again.
After the dough is fitted to a pizza pan, it gets two ladles of olive oil, two splashes of tomato sauce, and three shakes of mozzarella cheese, spread evenly. Then it goes in the oven.
Mr. Seo keeps the pizza baking until the crust is light brown. Then the assistant Mr. Lee takes over; he tops the pie off with fresh tomato slices and a heap of rugola. The finishing touch is three shakes of salt.
First bite: The rugola is aromatic and crunchy, the tomatoes juicy and tasty and the cheese crust is first crispy then chewy. First thought: How lucky Italians are to eat heavenly dishes like this everyday.
Ms. Pyon is preparing to open a new branch of La Volpaia in Itaewon as well as a Cambodian restaurant near the original La Volpaia, which she said would be the first of its kind in Korea. Both restaurants are due to open early next month.
La Volpaia is near the Prada shop in Cheongdam-dong and is open daily from noon to 9:30 p.m. Pasta costs about 10,000 won ($7.80) and pizza 15,000 won. For reservations, call 02-543-1770 (English available).
Holy Risotto! Careful How You Load on All That Parmesan, Paulie
Where can you get a plate of authentic risotto, the Italian version of seasoned, creamy rice? Il Ponte, in the basement of the Seoul Hilton hotel, is a good bet. The spot is a favorite of many Italian diplomats and expats. Manning the spacious kitchen there is the Italian import Francesco Brocca, a chef who has the answer to any question you can cook up.
Mr. Brocca is a well-traveled chef. He joined Il Ponte in March after working in Dubai and several European countries. He began his cooking career at age 14, and went on to study hotel management. As the head chef at Il Ponte, he has developed his own procedures to manage and control the kitchen's staff of 15 cooks.
The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition recently joined Mr. Brocca in his culinary habitat, and was showered with kitchen wisdom. "Extra fresh ingredients and olive oil are the most important things," he says. He gestures to a bottle to show he prefers a certain brand of medium-flavored extra virgin olive oil. "Olives from Umbria are just right － not too strong － for Korean palates," he says. Koreans make up about half of Il Ponte's patrons, he adds.
On to the risotto: Some of Mr. Brocca's variations on the theme are risotto catalana (with lobster, green peas, shrimp and saffron juice), risotto al porcine mascarpone (with mushroom and mascapone cheese) and risotto al frutti di mare (with mixed seafood, scallops, mussels, shrimp, squid and lobster). According to the restaurant's regulars, the risotto catalana is the best risotto you'll find in Seoul.
Usually Mr. Brocca works behind the kitchen's large trattoria, the wood-fired brick oven where pizza is baked, but today he comes out to show a reporter his stuff.
He puts a ladle of olive oil into a steel pan and starts the heat. "Real chefs use steel pots and pans, never coated ones." He added some chopped garlic followed a bit later by lobster meat and shrimp, then green peas and saffron juice.
"When you're eating rice, you don't want to see or chew a chunk of garlic. So make sure it's chopped finely."
He splashes a little brandy and white wine in the pan before tossing in the rice. Mr. Brocca acknowledges that he uses Korean rice, but insists he can make it "very Italian."
Next he adds clam stock, a cup at a time, while stirring the rice with a large wooden spoon. He says it takes 20 minutes to cook the rice. "You want something romantic to cook when you invite a date over for dinner? Then you should cook risotto," he says with a twinkle in his eye.
About 10 minutes pass and the rice is still hard. He adds another cup of heated clam stock and some water. He sprinkles in white pepper, chopped parsley and a dash of spicy red chili pepper. "Take your time and stir. It needs to boil slowly." He samples a few grains. "No, it's not ready yet."
Mr. Bracco explains that he cooks the rice to please Korean tastes: softer and creamier. If diners prefer it al dente, they can request it that way.
It's been about 20 minutes. He turns off the heat and shakes the pan. "See? This way, the rice becomes more creamy. It's perrr--fect!"
He sprinkles in some parmesan cheese and begins to stir again. Asked whether you can put on parmesan just before eating, he shakes his head. "Never! You can put a little cheese in only when it's still cooking, just a little bit. But no parmesan cheese on seafood! Don't ask me why, that's the way Italians do it!"
He serves the dish. "Chefs hate it when guests don't eat the food right away. The temperature of the food is so important, you know?"
So I waste no time. The risotto, golden and creamy, gives off a hot steam. The rice is al dente. Each morsel of seafood is juicy and tender while soft peas pop in my mouth.
"You like it?" the chef asks, his deep brown eyes open wide. I can only return a thumbs-up because my mouth is too full. Mr. Brocca smiles. "A chef is like an artist," he says, "and when you cook, you feel the creative inspiration."
Il Ponte is in the basement of the Hilton hotel in downtown Seoul. Risotto costs about 20,000 won. For reservations, call 02-317-3270 (English service available).
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