Pursuing perfect pasta: Italian food by ItaliansWith new Italian restaurants one-upping each other every month, Italian cuisine in Korea is getting closer to the international standard. It might have taken nine years for Antonio Patella to get his own restaurant in the city that granted him honorary citizenship last month, but now ― along with younger brother Rodolfo and six other partners ― he has opened “Antonio,” a ristorante and vinoteca in Cheongdam-dong.
To Mr. Patella, who worked in Itaewon first and then in the bustling Gangnam station area until last year, opening his business right in the heart of Cheongdam-dong in southern Seoul is also a new challenge, which similarly faced Italian chefs first pioneering the Tokyo dining industry decades ago. “In Itaewon, you can have a small following of expats and foreigners. Outside Itaewon and in Gangnam, young people have little money, and they choose quantity over quality. And then, there’s Cheongdam-dong,” Mr. Patella said. “Cheongdam-dong is different. Like New York City, Cheongdam-dong is not part of Korea. People in Cheongdam-dong have money, and they are appreciative of quality dining and are willing to pay for it.”
His ambition at the spacious, open-kitchen restaurant, which can accommodate up to 96 diners in the hall, a large private room and a terrace, is, he declares in a flamboyant Italian accent, hands waving in the air ― “to serve good-quality, traditional Italian food made with Italian ingredients from Italy.”
With traditional recipes from his hometown of Puglia, in the southeast of Italy, plus those of an Italian chef from Ferrara in the Bologna region in the north, Antonio’s truly extensive menu generously, and ambitiously, covers the entire Italian peninsula.
For a la carte, the well-stocked and priced Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine, would be quintessentially elegant Italian fare, but for our multiple-course dinner, we chose a bottle of smooth and tasty medium red, La Segreta Rosso, D.O.C. (38,000 won, or $36, plus 10 percent VAT).
For starters, we ordered the traditional caprese, or Italian salad of fresh buffalo mozzarella, tomato, basil and arugula leaves (18,000 won) and a carpaccio of smoked salmon and sea bass served with lime dressing (15,000 won). Very light without being light on the authentic taste of Italy. The fresh cheese was incredibly tender and tasty; the peach-and-ivory colored ensemble of paper-thin fish was particularly well executed for those seeking freshness.
Steering away from ordinary pasta, we went for black ink spaghetti with prawns and saffron served with asparagus and bell peppers (18,000 won) and ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese served with fresh tomato and basil sauce (18,000 won). The oily spaghetti, vibrant in color, tasted like a net full of the ocean’s bounty, and the green, white and red inside the tender ravioli made us feel we were in an Italian home ―?except the portion was so small, as if the chef was either stingy or ran out of ingredients.
Before the main, we sampled al crudo piazza (fresh mozzarella and cured ham, at 25,000 won) out of the Special Antonio Pizza section, which Mr. Patella says is all about “luxury” pizzas made with top-grade ingredients. Placed before voracious taste hunters, the steaming hot slices only got to spend a few seconds on the plate, and for the “haute” pizza, we didn’t care about blistering our mouths.
Our main dishes were a lightly cooked beef filet served with arugula salad and balsamic sauce (18,000 won), sliced pork served with marsala sauce (24,000 won) and lightly fried shrimp, calamari and vegetable fritters (18,000 won). The beef filet was like carpaccio, super-thin, light and tangy from the sauce and aromatic greens. Compared with the plainer slab of pork, the versatile and colorful fritters disappeared quickly as they went so well with the Italian wine.
At Ristorante Antonio, always be sure to leave room for the dreamy Italian desserts, as panna cotta, a traditional Italian dessert made with fresh cream, and mascarpone cheesecake, with Mr. Patella’s personally blended strong coffee, are hard to come by elsewhere. The dinner’s not finished yet: While savoring each dollop of cream, be sure to leave room for the final round of a real Italian after-dinner treat: Limonello Averna (8,000 won), a chilled lemon liqueur, also popularly known as limoncello, served in a tulip glass. Living in Seoul, how much closer can I get to Italy? Bene appetite!
English: On the menu, soken.
Tel.: (02) 3443-4333
Hours: For meals, noon-2:30 p.m., 6-10:30 p.m. daily; for coffee and wine, open all day and until late.
Location: Behind the Mnet building in Cheongdam-dong
Dress code: Smart casual or elegant.
by Ines Cho