Pizza in Singapore may have long been dominated by mass-produced thick and thin-crusts identified by easy-to-remember phone numbers and catchy jingles, but the artisanal pie is slowly making its presence felt. The foray into designer pizzas could well have been kickstarted by Mario Batali's Pizzeria Mozza at Marina Bay Sands, which sees regular crowds devouring Nancy Silverton's signature creations.
Its executive chef Karla Mendoza has been with the company for nine years, and helped them open their Los Angeles outlet before moving to Singapore. "We started out in Singapore with a bang," says the Philippine-born chef Mendoza, who recalls how they had to turn people away at the door when they first opened here five years ago. "I remember everyone telling us how unique our concept was... the only pizza places back then were chains places like Pizza Hut and Domino's. But now, more specialty pizza restaurants are popping up."
In fact, in just the last few months alone, there have been three new kids on the block - Pizza Fabbrica at Kampong Glam, Dario Pizza & More in Clementi, and Motorino at Clarke Quay.
Motorino officially launched just earlier this week, and it is chef Mathieu Palombino's first outlet in Singapore, and his fourth in Asia. His pizza brand was brought in by couple Francis Tay and Carol Lee, who fell in love with his pizza when they first tasted it in Hong Kong.
Says Mr Tay: "The reason we want to bring this to Singapore is we realised people's palettes here are getting more sophisticated. People are looking for food that is original and traditional, not fancy food or fast food."
This trend has also been noticed by existing pizza places, such as Italian restaurant Cicheti, which opened in December 2013. Its chef and co-owner Yew Aun Lim observes that nowadays "it seems as if a new (artisanal pizza place) opens each month, and more non-pizza restaurants are also offering pizza on their menu regardless of cuisine".
He elaborates: "The word 'artisanal' wasn't part of the pizza culture in Singapore for some time. You had a lot of thicker and thinner crust pizzas, but traditional pizzas were not the norm. Recently within the past couple of years, more and more wood-fired ovens have arrived in Singapore and that has started to change the pizza landscape."
La Pizziola's founder Loris Massimini attributes the growing popularity of artisanal pizzas to a maturing dining audience. His pizza joint opened in Jalan Riang in 2012, and has since spawned two more outlets. He says: "Twenty-five years ago, people clustered western food into a single category. Over the years, more and more specialty outlets emerged and as the market matured, you see specialisation within each type of ethnic cuisine."
Plus, with more people people travelling and getting a taste of traditional pizza in Italy, it seems like this style of pizza is here to stay. Adds Mr Massimini: "There's no secrets in today's world. Singaporeans are well travelled and extremely Internet savvy. As people see more, hear more, and taste more, it's inevitable that tastebuds become more discriminating."
Agreeing with him is Chef Mendoza of Pizzeria Mozza, who also believes that a growing number of Singaporeans will prefer freshly-made food. She says: "I think people have become more sophisticated in their choices of food, and are willing to spend a little bit more to get a better quality. It's why our dough is hand-made every day, and whatever we don't sell we discard. Nothing is frozen or pre-made. I don't even have a freezer!"
By Rachel Loi
New kids on the pizza block
3A River Valley Road
Clarke Quay #01-01A
Open 4pm to 11pm daily
Pizza chef Mathieu Palombino is actually a French chef by training. His dream was to go to America and open a French fine dining steakhouse in New York City. Except that was in 2008 - when the country was going through a major recession and everyone was tightening their belts.
"I knew (a steakhouse) was never going to work out," says the 37-year-old who was born in Belgium. "I found myself wondering what should I do, and I was eating a lot of pizza at the time. Then I realised pizza was a great option."
So after a few trips to Naples in Italy, plus three months of studying bread-making and trying out different dough recipes, chef Palombino came up with what he thought to be the best possible pizza dough. The next step was to open his first outlet of Motorino - a casual pizza joint serving Neapolitan pizza (a type of pizza that originated in Naples) in Brooklyn, New York.
Now, chef Palombino has two Motorino outlets in New York, two in Hong Kong, and one in Manila, and just last Wednesday he officially launched his first outlet here in Singapore, located in Clarke Quay.
This outlet is a licensing partnership with local couple Francis Tay and Carol Lee, who are new entrants to the food and beverage industry. They decided to bring in Motorino after stumbling across one of the pizzeria's outlets in Hong Kong.
"We were travelling when we found Motorino and decided to try it. It was so lovely, I just couldn't get the flavour out of my head. So I told my husband we have to get this in Singapore," explains Ms Lee, who recently left her full-time job in the retail and electronics industry to run Motorino.
At Motorino, the pizzas range from a simple marinara pizza with tomato sauce and oregano, their specialty brussel sprouts and bacon pizza, to a prosciutto and rocket pizza with mozzarella cheese. Prices range from S$17 to S$30 per pizza.
Their pizza crust is addictively crunchy, thanks to their three-tonne wood-fired oven that was made in Naples using bricks that came from that region. Explains chef Palombino: "The oven affects the way the pizza cooks because it's a wood fire so it's very dry. It's the right way to make a Neapolitan pizza, but it's not the most important step of course - the most important is the dough. But still you cannot avoid this, there's no Neapolitan pizza with no Neapolitan oven."
Now that he is done helping with the opening of Motorino in Singapore, chef Palombino has set his sights on countries like Malaysia and France for his next outlets, but firmly rejects any suggestions that he is building a global franchise.
"We're not a franchise, we're a family of pizzerias. I operate the ones in New York and work closely with my partners in Asia. I am still very much a part of the operations in a remote way - improving and fixing problems whenever necessary," he says.
By Rachel Loi
Dario Pizza & More
6 Clementi Road
Open Tues to Sun,11.30am - 2pm and 6pm-10pm, closed on Mon
Ever wanted to leave the country after a bad break-up? Dario Bonaccorso did just that. Combined with Italy's weak economy, the 32- year-old decided to pack up and move to Singapore in 2010 at the behest of a former boss who was looking for a pizza chef. "I thought, why not?"
After three years cooking at Al Forno in the East Coast, Chef Bonaccorso decided to go it alone, opening Dario Pizza & More - a 30- seater just off Clementi Road. Opened on Feb 26, the pizzeria was a natural transition for Chef Bonaccorso. He says: "I am specialised in pizza. I was a pizza chef in Italy for five years, and I love it."
His bestseller is the Diavola (S$19) which contains tomatoes, mozzarella and salami. The Bomba is more expensive at S$28, given the additional toppings of ham, mushroom, artichoke and bacon.
In spite of his Sicilian heritage, Chef Bonaccorso's pizzas are served thin and crispy, instead of the thick crust-style the region is famous for. While the Bomba packs in a lot of flavour, the Diavola (Italian for the Devil) doesn't deliver much heat. Far from being hellishly spicy, this pizza tastes more like a Margherita with meat.
The young chef honed his pizza-making skills in a town near Maranello, home to the famous Ferrari museum. Having lived in Italy all his life, moving to Singapore wasn't a decision to be made lightly.
"I took a risk. Italy's a 12-hour flight away, so it's very far. Fortunately, I like it here. I like the place and the lifestyle, so it worked out," he says.
He takes pride in his authentic pizzas, but shies away from using a traditional wood-fired oven. He says: "I don't have a licence for one of those, but in Singapore, we don't get access to nice chopped wood, and there isn't enough space in my restaurant anyway. I imported an electric oven from Italy, which is different from a wood-fired one because the pizza comes out much crisper, and the oven itself is easier to clean."
Dario Pizza & More's location has made it a hit with its neighbours. Chef Bonaccorso says: "It's doing well, people here are very happy. This place is very crowded over the weekends with a lot of people visiting from the nearby condominiums."
Pizza Fabbrica 69/70 Bussorah Street
Open Tues to Thurs, Sun, 11.30am - 11pm; Fri and Sat, 11:30am - midnight
You've heard of pumpkin cream soup, or pumpkin cream pasta sauce, but pumpkin cream as a pizza topping? It sounds unusual, but the sweet pumpkin cream, together with fresh mozzarella, broccolini and sun dried tomato, makes for a tasty pizza that has become the signature dish for Pizza Fabbrica, a four-month old pizzeria in the Kampong Glam area.
Italian restaurants are a dime a dozen in Singapore, so owner Sumeet Singla wanted his to be different. The head chef, Matteo Boifava, hails from Cremona, Lombary in northern Italy, and has over 18 years of cooking experience, mostly in fine dining establishments, including a stint at The Fat Duck.
On the Pizza Fabbrica menu are the usual classics such as the Margherita, Funghi and Diavola. But there are also the more unusual or the gourmet ones, as Mr Singla calls them. They include the Pancetta Funghi Caprino e Scalogno, topped with fresh mozzarella, pancetta, portobello mushrooms, scallions and goat cheese, as well as the Funghi Scamorza e Tartufo, that comes with fresh mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, Scamorza cheese and truffle.
"Unlike other restaurants which do fusion pizzas, such as rendang or tandoori pizzas, we don't do that here," says Mr Singla. "Instead, we have more exotic ingredients, but they are mostly Italian ones."
Chef Boifava adds: "We don't want to be too extreme in our choice of pizza toppings, but to use ingredients that work in harmony with each other."
The pizza creations are all the work of the 39-year-old chef who moved to Singapore five months ago. "About 90 per cent of the ingredients, such as the Taggiasca olives, are imported from Italy. The quality of the ingredients makes a key difference to how good a pizza will be," says the chef, who had to cook a meal for Mr Singla before he got the job. The two met when Mr Singla flew to Italy in search of a chef.
Everything is done inhouse in the restaurant, and to ensure freshness, the dough and sauces are all made in small batches. Mr Singla describes the restaurant as "serving serious food but in a fun way".
The pizzas, which make up about 50 per cent of all food sales, all feature Chef Boifava's own style of pizza base, made with dough that has been proofed for 48 hours, using the best quality of Caputo flour from Italy and topped with Fior di Latte or fresh mozzarella. The pizzas range from S$18 to S$30.
The result is a pizza base that is crispy, slightly chewy and yet light. "It is much like biting into a pillow," says Mr Singla. Chef Boifava believes that sufficient proofing time is crucial. "I use only one per cent fresh yeast in the dough, and allow for a longer proofing time," he says. Doing this has made it a bit of a logistical nightmare as precious kitchen space is needed to store the dough. "But the result is worth it," says Chef Boifava.
The restaurant sells about 40 pizzas on weekdays, and about 70 on weekends. The restaurant will soon introduce other pizzas including one that comes with pear, pesto, beans and peas.
"We've noticed a shift in diners choosing the gourmet pizzas over the classics," says Mr Singla. "Diners want pizzas with seasonal ingredients, and toppings that are not so easily found in other restaurants."
By Tay Suan Chiang
This article was first published on Mar 21, 2015.
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