It has long been accepted history that Venetian trader Marco Polo brought noodles from the Silk Route to Italy in the 13th century and thus introduced Italians to an Eastern staple that would become their national dish, spaghetti.
However, the Roman poet Horace wrote about dried sheets of pasta that we know today as lasagna in the first century BC and Muhammad al-Idrisi wrote of spaghetti in Sicily in his “Tabula Rogeriana,” (the book of Roger) a full 100 years before Polo was born.
It would appear that spaghetti was probably introduced to the Italians as noodles from China. However, it was done so using the ancient trade routes through the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea that brought them there via Sicily.
The essence of good Italian food could be summed up as having freshness, quality, seasonality and regionality of ingredients, dishes simply prepared that let these three pillars of the cuisine shine through. However, given the diaspora of Italians throughout the world and the ubiquity of Italian restaurants, the interpretation of seasonality and regionality are often put to the test.
Last month I sat down to lunch at a finely set table in Do Forni Italian restaurant at the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra hotel. There was a sense of grand occasion and expectation to the affair as it was the unveiling of the first menu by consulting Italian chef Fabrizio Aceti, a native of Piedmonte in the northwest mountains of Italy, founder of Super-Chef Global consultancy and a respected and admired hotel executive chef for more than 20 years.
Aceti’s résumé reads like a chef traveling through his own Asian bucket list: from Singapore to Shanghai, his deep passion about Italian food, its origins and its authenticity consistently shines through.
At lunch Aceti started strong with a fresh, local Siem Reap mozzarella atop a classic Sicilian caponato, finely chopped eggplant served with a slightly sweet vinegar and capers with a sweet and sour sauce. The presentation, texture, flavors and finesse of this dish set the tone for an exceptional tour de force of Italian cuisine.
Next was a classic dish from the chef’s own region, Piedmonte, a vitello tonnato, which is a thinly sliced veal loin served with a creamy tuna sauce and celery. The veal was tender and flavorful, not dried out, and the sauce subtle and creamy, offering a nice contrast. A beautiful dish.
The third dish was a capesante e prosciutto, affumicato, scallops rolled in smoked ham and sage, served with a rucola salad and balsamic dressing. This was a mouth-watering dish that could only have perhaps been improved with a touch more acidity.
The pasta dish was a garganelli alla marinara, homemade, rolled pasta with clams, mussels, crab meat and shrimp in a seafood sauce. It showed the delicate freshness of homemade pasta crammed with seafood flavors that were light and vibrant enough not to overwhelm.
Melruzzo alla veneziana, a Venetian dish comprising milk simmered cod with olives, asparagus and olive oil, was a statement in elegance and texture with a light, delicately poached fish offering a moist, silken texture on the palate.
Finally we returned to Sicily for the finale, a cannelloni ala siciliana, which is essentially a cannelloni filled with vanilla, chocolate and spiced mascarpone served with hazelnut ice cream.
What struck me with Aceti’s cooking was that he managed to bring delicacy, finesse and balance to the dishes without sacrificing complexity and flavor.
It would appear that as we now have Italian chefs bringing their version of noodles back to Asia and the ovens at Do Forni are being overseen by one of the true masters of Italian cuisine in the region.