The proliferation of chic Italian restaurants boasting regional food from Tuscany, Venice and Sardinia has cast the spotlight on the cuisine recently.
Yet, Pete's Place, considered Singapore's oldest Italian restaurant and looks stuck in time, is still popular. The 120-seat restaurant at the Grand Hyatt Singapore turns 40 next month.
It is among the eateries taking part in the inaugural Gusto Italiano food and wine event, which is organised by Singapore Press Holdings' subsidiary event management and exhibitions company, Sphere Exhibits, and hospitality and food and beverage consultancy Poulose Associates. Initially a three-day event, it sold out so quickly that the hotel added three more dates.
On choosing the quaint restaurant, which is popular for its salad buffets and Sunday brunch, Mr Francis Poulose of Poulose Associates says: "I have been dining there since the 1980s, so you could say I grew up with the restaurant and now, my kids dine there too. There's always a warm, cosy feeling when I am there, coupled with some nostalgia.
"It's not about a five-star dining experience, but good food, friendly service and the family-friendly atmosphere. Come to think of it, the restaurant has never disappointed me."
The hotel's spokesman says the restaurant - first known as Pete's Pizzeria when it opened in 1973 - was named after Mr Peter D'Tullio, who was the president of Hyatt International. Since it was doing well, its general manager decided to change it to a family restaurant. It was renamed Pete's Place in 1976.
Dining at the restaurant, tucked in the hotel's basement, is like being teleported back to the 1980s. The interior features exposed brick walls, dark wood furnishing and old black and white pictures. On the tables are red and white checked tablecloths, complemented with blue and white checked napkins - a rare sight these days.
Pointing to the napkins, chef de cuisine William Tan, 57, laughs and says: "These napkins used to be stuffed into the water glasses." He proceeds to demonstrate it. He adds that the tables also used to be decorated with single blooms in soft drink Orangina glass bottles.
The jovial chef has been with the hotel since 1979. Eight years were spent at Pete's Place and the father of three considers it his second home.
He recalls: "You can say we were the trendsetters back then when we did brunch, sold brownies and even delivered our pizzas in a mini-van. We also had a 'mug club' where diners would have their own mug to drink from in the restaurant."
To keep up with the times, the restaurant started cooking pizza in wood ovens about 20 years ago. And even though there is no Italian chef heading the kitchen, the restaurant hosts guest chefs who do Italian cuisine promotions occasionally.
In addition, it runs a soup and salad buffet lunch ($28) from Mondays to Saturdays from noon to 2.30pm, as well as a popular Sunday brunch ($58 for adults and $29 for children) from 11.30am to 2.30pm, with a live cooking station for pasta.
On how the ambience has changed, he says: "It was a fun place then. Think of it like an Italian kopitiam. The music was loud, chefs would be shouting across the restaurant and diners will be joining in the conversation. Now, it's a bit more serious, but we still get a lot of regular customers."
The location is also a popular choice for wedding solemnisations, and birthday and anniversary celebrations. Back in its heyday in the 1980s, local actors such as Pan Ling Ling and Chew Chor Meng as well as American singer Paula Abdul dined at the restaurant. Their photographs are still on its doors.
Mr Yunos Junahad, 57, who joined the hotel at the age of 17 and is currently the restaurant captain, says: "The best part of working here is meeting people from all over the world and talking to them about Singapore."
At the end of next year, the restaurant will undergo a renovation, although the scale of the revamp has not been confirmed. Chef Tan says: "I hope they don't change so much, maybe they can just touch up or tweak the menus."
A former trainee at Pete's Place is celebrity chef-consultant Eric Teo, 49, who spent three months there when he was 22.
He recalls: "It was a very busy restaurant back in the 1980s. Among my chef friends, we used to joke that if you want to get promoted quickly, you should join Pete's Place. It's a very family-oriented restaurant and the staff treated me like one of their family members. You don't feel alone when you dine there, the next table will know or get to know you. I hope the restaurant doesn't change, they don't need to compete with others."
It is the familiar staff at Pete's Place that Ms Liu Yueh Mei, 39, appreciates. The director of a professional development training consultancy has been a loyal diner at the restaurant for the past 15 years, dining there at least once a week with friends and family.
The mother of two says: "New Italian restaurants now may have finer presentation, but what keeps us going back is that it's like eating home-cooked food, which you can eat every day and not get sick of. It is not pretentious and the staff there know what we like and don't like to eat.
"They are also always open to suggestions. We requested cod once and they now have that on the menu, so we know that they listen to us. Sure, the chairs may be a bit rickety, but if they change the place totally, we'll be really sad."
Taste of Italy
More than 60 per cent of the Gusto Italiano events are sold out, but here are some events with places still available:
What: Three new dates have been added to this previously sold-out event. Diners can have their fill of pizzas as well as salads, cold cuts and Italian desserts at Singapore's oldest Italian restaurant.
Where: Pete's Place, Grand Hyatt Singapore, basement
When: Sept 10, 17 or 24, 6 to 10pm
Price: $40++ (adult), $20 (child)
Info: Call 6416-7113 for reservations
Sunkissed Sicily With The Wines Of Donnafugata
What: A six-course dinner paired with the Sicilian wines of Donnafugata. Dishes include pan-fried duck breast with sauteed spinach, roasted new potatoes, pomegranate and Sicilian marsala sauce; and ricotta and marjoram ravioli with tomato and pork sauce.
Where: Dolce Vita, Mandarin Oriental Singapore, 5 Raffles Avenue
When: Sept 6, 7pm
Price: $208++, $166.40 for HSBC cardholders
Gifts Of The Forest With The Wines Of Fontodi
What: Pair Fontodi wines with dishes such as pasta with wild boar, chicory and pecorino; and wagyu beef with cardoncelli mushrooms and parsley root.
Where: il Lido, 27 Bukit Manis Road, Sentosa Golf Club
When: Sept 11, 7pm
Price: $208++, $166.40 for HSBC cardholders
A Caviar And Franciacorta Dinner
What: il Cielo chef Omar Bernardi has designed a menu with Italian caviar. Highlights include 3 Way Cod Fish with Caviar Oscietra Classic, Caviar Oscietra Royal, Caviar Venise; and Acquerello Risotto with Oyster, homemade warm angel hair pasta with truffle, Caviar Da Vinci and Caviar Lingotto.
Where: il Cielo, Level 24, Hilton Singapore, 581 Orchard Road
When: Sept 19, 7pm
Price: $318++, $254.40++ for HSBC cardholders
Flavours Of Italy Culinary Workshops
What: Learn from chefs including Mario Caramella of inItaly Bar Ristorante and Diego Chiarini of Oso Ristorante.
Where: ToTT Cooking Studio, 896 Dunearn Road
When: Sept 21 and 22, 10am, noon, 2 and 4pm
Price: $25, $20 for HSBC cardholders, for each workshop
For more information, call 6319-4038 (weekdays, 9am to 6pm), e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.gustoitaliano.com.sg
Oldies But Goodies
Other Italian restaurants that are at least 20 years old:
Founded: 1986, 27 years old
What: The 230-seat restaurant continues to serve hearty Italian classics by chef Antonio Facchinetti from the restaurant's pizzeria, rotisserie, takeaway counter and deli.
Where: Fairmont Singapore, Level 1, 11.30am to 2.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays), 12.30 to 3pm (Sunday brunch), 6.30 to 10.30pm (dinner, daily)
Info: Call 6431-6156 or e-mail email@example.com
Pasta Fresca Da Salvatore
Founded: 1988, 25 years old
What: Chef-owner Carecci Salvatore has built up a chain of homely Italian casual restaurants with outlets at Boat Quay, Bukit Timah, Rochester Mall and Upper East Coast Road. The brand has also expanded to China, with three outlets in Shanghai and a franchise in Tianjin City.
Da Paolo Group
Founded: 1989, 24 years old
What: From its days as Trattoria Da Paolo in Tanjong Pagar, the group now has four concepts with 12 outlets. These include gourmet deli Da Paolo Gastronomia, Da Paolo Ristorante, Da Paolo BistroBar and Da Paolo Pizza Bar.
Founded: 1993, 20 years old
What: The two-storey shophouse still retains the warm ambience and traditional Italian pasta made in-house, antipasti and risotto.
Where: 11 Craig Road, noon to 2.30pm, 6.30 to 10.30pm, Mondays to Saturdays, closed on Sundays
Info: Call 6227-7550 or go to www.pastabrava.com.sg
La Forketta Gastronomia Italia
Founded: 1993, 20 years old
What: To maintain its consistency, the Italian restaurant sources its premium ingredients from the Apulia region in southern Italy, such as olive oils and cured meats. For art lovers, the restaurant also features pieces from Italian artist Michele Roccotelli.
Where: Two outlets at 8 Dempsey Road and 1 Nassim Road
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