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Italian eatery marks decade of change

Update: June, 16/2013 - 02:24
Family-style: The casual interior creates a comfortable atmosphere.

Not so long ago, it was difficult to get Italian ingredients in Ha Noi. But the success of Pane e Vino demonstrates that bread and wine are now almost as easy to find as rice and beer. Elisabeth Rosen reports.

If you wanted basil in Ha Noi in the 1990s, you had to get someone to bring you seeds from Italy and grow them at home. Today, the tomato and mozzarella salad at Pane e Vino comes crowned with a sprig of basil from the local market.

This isn't the only change that's come to the Vietnamese pantry. At this casual bistro near the Opera House, which is currently celebrating one decade of business, Da Lat-grown zucchini makes a garnish for beef tenderloin and local grapes are sprinkled beside imported salami. These vegetables' ready availability reflects the growing internationalisation of Ha Noi dining.

It was at a nearby Italian restaurant, Il Grillo, that Nguyen Xuan Hoang became passionate about Italian food. As a server, he learned about wine and antipasti, cheese and tiramisu, and how all these dishes could fit together into a balanced meal. Today, the owner of Pane e Vino makes it his mission to offer Vietnamese customers the same education.

Dao Tung Ngoc, the chef at Pane and one of the restaurant's co-owners (the third is Nguyen Ngoc Hung, who works with Hoang to import Italian wines and spirits) also got his start at Il Grillo. But while he trained under Piedmont-born chef Giuseppe Bovetti, Ngoc has his own vision. His house-made pastas and artfully composed salads have a casual appeal, less the province of the stuffy restaurant than the family dining room.

Gone are the days when Italian food was a rarity in Ha Noi. With the proliferation of mid-range restaurants like Al Fresco's and Pepperoni's, expectations are higher: it's not enough just to serve pizza and spaghetti. A restaurant needs a clear emphasis, whether that's a particular dish or a pervasive aesthetic.

Here, the focus is on large antipasto plates to be shared over wine, like the generous caprese salad (VND175,000), and crisp deep-fried zucchini blossoms with imported salami and prosciutto (VND185,000). Crostini, served on slices of crusty bread baked in-house, come topped with a rich puddle of sharp goat cheese and sundried tomato (VND85,000). There are also set menus to share, Vietnamese-style (VND390,000-760,000 per person), which let participants sample each course of a traditional Italian meal.

Reviewing Pane e Vino in 2005, two years after the restaurant opened, a Viet Nam News critic wrote that she preferred it to the city's more upscale "Italian giants". The setting reminded her of "pavement cafes in Roman squares, only the famous fountains were replaced by motorbikes on the quiet alley. The food was less fancy, less fussy."

Or as Hoang puts it: "They're five-star. We're no-star."

The kitchen's casual attitude occasionally leaves something to be desired. Homemade sausage was bland and oddly pink. An otherwise enjoyable beef tenderloin (VND370,000) was marred by a soggy stack of potato wedges.

But if you overlook these brief stumbles, the place has its charms. A honey-tinged vinaigrette and shreds of fresh orange distinguished a salad of microgreens, Parma ham and Parmesan (VND125,000). Golden house-made fettuccini drew a tingling warmth from red chilies and paper-thin slices of hot salami (VND165,000). These spicier dishes, added to the menu last year, reflect the increasing adventurousness of the Vietnamese palate. "Esplosova" (explosive) pizza, topped with hot salami, capers, Gorgonzola and chili peppers (VND135,000) is apparently one of the bestsellers.

Appetising antipasti: Pane e Vino focuses on large plates to be shared over wine.

The decor, too, is casual, in the way that a Sunday dinner with family is casual: wrought-iron chairs and tables draped in vermilion tablecloths, with slightly askew black-and-white photographs lining the walls. If this were a family dinner, we'd be served similar slabs of tiramisu (VND75,000). Other local restaurants load the dessert with a dizzying amount of sugar; here, a mere trace of sweetness streaks through layers of fluffy mascarpone, balanced by the dark bitterness of coffee. The liqueur flavour, too, predominates: you picture an Italian grandmother in the kitchen, stirring a bowl of mascarpone while pouring indulgently from a bottle of marsala. A grandmother, too, would try to cajole you into trying unfamiliar dishes with the same tone that the menu uses to describe risotto: "Rice but... Italian style!" — VNS

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Pane e Vino

Address: 3 Nguyen Khac Can

Tel.: (04) 3826 9080

Price Range: VND100,000 – 800,000

Comment: Casual Italian. Dishes to try: Insalata caprese, fettucini piccante, tiramisu

 

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