A Milan chef takes Beijing diners on a virtual tour of his country, one bite at a time. Mike Peters steps in for a taste of Venice.
Ask Italian chefs where they are from, and the response is rarely "Italy". The more likely answer is Rome, or Lombardy, or Sardinia, or whatever town or region they claim as home.
Mauro Portaluppi, head chef at Beijing's Tavola restaurant in the Liangmaqiao embassy district, is no exception, proudly hailing from stylish Milan. Born in 1975, he was intrigued by cooking as a child－one uncle owned four restaurants in the city.
Unimpressed by the food served at their school cafeteria, 8-year-old Mauro and his twin brother would go home at midday and cook pasta or pizza themselves for lunch.
At the age of 16, he enrolled in the well-known Carlo Porta Professional Hotel College in Milan.
But while Portaluppi is firmly rooted in his regional foods, he is also eager to show China the big picture of Italian cuisine.
So soon after he took the helm of Tavola's kitchen last year, he launched a culinary tour of his country, starting with Puglia, an agricultural region that produces about 40 per cent of Italy's olive oil.
Also famous for its wines and a long coastline with a rich tradition for seafood, Puglia came to Beijing customers on plates that featured deep-fried mackerel fillets with cucumbers in vinegar and mint, sauteed mussels with clams and cherry tomatoes, and squid stuffed with focaccia bread.
An Australian cod fish and tiger prawn combination, served with roasted pepper and thyme and mint compote.
Since then, Portaluppi's foodie tour of Italy show has made several stops: in the pastoral island of Sardinia for Mediterranean fish; in Lombardy, for which he cooked a delicate veal ossobucco from his native Milan; Trentino and Alto Adige, a chance to display wonderful desserts which originated in ancient Rome, and traditional pastries stuffed with speck and porcini mushrooms.
The current destination is Venice, the medieval seaport that once anchored the Maritime Silk Road and boasts a variety of landscapes as well as culinary contributions from civilizations of the past, including a vigorous food and wine festival tradition.
The region is famous for excellent prosecco from Treviso, and Amarone and Bardolino from Verona.
For Venice, Portaluppi's regional menu starter is shrimp with onion, nuts and dried grapes, cod fish mousse with roasted polenta and red pepper compote.
Next comes a beautiful red-radish risotto made creamy with Asiago cheese, cooked just past the al dente stage to perhaps be more harmonious with Chinese tastes.
The main course is beef steak Venice style, with spinach and Amarone wine sauce, and the finale is tiramisu, artfully served in a glass with fresh fruits and thin chocolate crisps.
Duck breast roasted with honey, served with baked potato, broccoli and almond slices.
Like at the other "stops" on Tavola's Italian gourmet tour, each lasting a few weeks, the Venice set menu includes one glass of regional wine, in this case either the red wine Cecilia Beretta Bardolino Classico DOC or the sparkling white Bisol prosecco, for 398 yuan ($61).
While Portaluppi has worked at posh eateries such as Michelin-starred Al Geno-vese in Milan and the Hotel Yacht Club Costa Smeralda in Sardinia, he applies the same attention to detail whether he is making an elegant cod platter or a "simple" pizza.
"We have a real wood-fired oven that uses real apricot tree wood," he told the Beijinger magazine during that publication's Pizza Cup competition last year.
"We use typical Italian flour, imported from Italy. We use canned tomato imported from Italy, the same as what is used in many restaurants there.
And we dress our pizzas with oil, salt, pepper and oregano, just like in Italy."
A chef puts a rustica pizza into a wood-fired oven.
Tavola's rustica pizza is among its most popular, but it's not Portaluppi's favourite because he doesn't care for the taste of truffle.
"When you go to a pizza place," he says, "you should always try the margherita to understand what they are doing."
If you go
Grand Summit (Section B) at the Liangmaqiao diplomatic compound, 19 Dongfang East Road, Chaoyang district, Beijing. 010-8532-5068.