An Italian musician’s culinary grace notesWhat does it take to turn an obscure, “Korean-style Italian” restaurant into a new destination for Seoul’s Italophiles? Apparently, it takes one Italian pianist-slash-restaurateur named Antonio Patella.
Before Mr. Patella joined the staff in May, Puccini, a three-story Italian restaurant near Gangnam station, had been around for seven years, serving bland, Koreanized Italian dishes, in a vast but ordinary-looking interior.
Mr. Patella, a native of southeast Italy who for two years was the manager of Itaewon’s well-known La Tavola, was hired at Puccini as a pianist, but was soon running the place. He changed the furniture, the wine list and the food. Now, it’s not only spacious ― its seats 300, and has a garden, a rooftop terrace and a 5,000-bottle-capacity wine cellar ― but casually elegant. And the wide-ranging menu, which includes authentic Italian delights hard to find in Korea, is attracting enthusiastic members of Seoul’s small Italian community.
My meal inside Puccini’s sun-drenched hall, with its alabaster walls and high ceilings, started with a basket of assorted Italian breads fresh from the oven: focaccia, grisinni casalinghi, pane nero, pane alle noci and pane bianco stile baguette. Dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the bread, especially the pane nero, which is made with squid’s ink, was so fresh that I thought I could eat it all day.
It may not be to everyone’s taste, but a plate of fresh anchovies, or acciughe marinate fatte in casa (9,000 won, or $7, plus a 5-percent service charge), is one of Mr. Patella’s recommendations, along with the more popular caprese (tomato and mozzarella cheese, 13,000 won) served with arugula leaves. Together, these make for a mouthful of genuine Italian flavor ― pungent anchovy, aromatic arugula, soft mozzarella and ripe tomato, all drizzled in fragrant olive oil.
The wine list is extensive, from a 1999 Margaux Cuvee Prestigeto (75,000 won) and a 1996 Jorda Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County (100,000 won) to a 1998 Silvio Nardi Rosso di Montalccino D.O.C. (55,000 won). But Mr. Patella brought me a wonderful glass of chilled white wine, the 2000 Masi Levarie Soave Classico D.O.C., priced at an affordable 25,000 won per bottle. Refreshing, lightly fruity and medium-dry, it went well with both the starters and the pasta dishes.
I mentioned to Mr. Patella that a couple of Italian guests I’d entertained at home loved Korean-style garlic pickles. He said he didn’t want to serve anything Korean at his restaurant, but that his customers indeed often requested pickles. So Puccini serves its own version: a small plate of pickled eggplant, zucchini, carrot, cucumber and garlic in a pale green pool of extra-virgin olive oil. These thin eggplant slices, Mr. Patella said, had been slightly dried in the oven and then grilled, Greek-style, before being pickled in vinegar for a few weeks and finally served in olive oil. This may have been the most savory pickle I’ve ever tasted.
The menu boasts pages of pasta dishes. Puccini’s special spaghetti (18,000 won) ― which Mr. Patella says originated in the mountain area between Bologne and Chianti Valley ― is flamboyantly whipped up on a cart alongside the table. The server pours a splash of rum into a large wheel of Parmesan cheese; then the rum is lit, to melt the cheese. Spaghetti noodles, already mixed with thick tomato sauce and porcini mushrooms, are tossed in the now-creamy Parmesan, and the spaghetti is served with arugula leaves. Frankly, I enjoyed the drama of the preparation more than I did the dish itself; my favorite pastas are usually simpler, made with white wine and olive oil.
Penne al mascarpone, bacon et vodka, (16,000 won), which, indeed, involves vodka, is apparently a novelty even to Italians (my Italian tablemate was surprised, at any rate). It turned out to be deliciously creamy, with tender strips of pink bacon.
Diners can order freshly made pasta if they call a day in advance. When I asked for fresh pasta, Mr. Patella offered me the plat du jour: a pile of orechiette with tomato sauce (15,000 won), which he said is a specialty of his hometown of Puglia. The pasta looked like a pile of soft, squiggly French fries; tender yet toothy, it was nicely coated in bright red sauce that had just the right Mediterranean zest.
Mr. Patella bragged about his wood-fired pizza, so I promised him I would be back for more.
At the moment, he works with five talented Korean chefs who learn fast, but he said he would soon hire an Italian chef.
When I asked for my favorite dessert, the quintessentially Italian panna cotta, or milk pudding (6,000 won), Mr. Patella became visibly excited. “Most restaurants these days make the pudding out of instant powder. No, no, I don’t do that here. I make it out of fresh milk every morning and I buy fresh strawberries to make the topping,” he declared. The freshness of the milk was apparent, and the dessert was just right ― sweet and delicious, with very fresh strawbery sauce.
Even the restaurant’s six different kinds of gelato (6,000 won) are made in one of the two kitchens in the back. The ice cream is also made fresh daily, Mr. Patella said.
Finishing my dramatically Italian meal with a glass of chilled Limocello (6,000 won), a tangy Italian dessert liqueur, followed by a cup of espresso, I couldn’t help admiring this musician’s non-musical talent. Mr. Patella says he’s releasing an album in the fall, by which time he says a new wine bar on Puccini’s second floor will be ready to open. Well, what could better than an Italian feast made up of music, wine and homemade pasta? I’ll be checking my calendar.
English: Spoken, along with French, Spanish, Italian and Korean.
English menu: Available.
Telephone: (02) 552-2877.
Location: Behind City Cinema near Gangnam station, line No. 2, exit 7.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-midnight daily; open till 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
Dress: Smart casual.
by Ines Cho