2012 will go down in the Shanghai F&B annals as the year of the Italian invasion. That's right, as if the Shanghai weren't flush as it is, this year's openings seemed almost exclusively from The Boot. And as much as I complain that Shanghai has too many Italian restaurants I suppose it's only poetic justice that three out of my five picks this year are Italian. So, without any further ado, my top 5 for 2012.
Willy Trullas Moreno’s admittedly not venturing too far out of his comfort zone with this one. I suppose he was a tad gun shy after that failed Japanese Spanish fusion tapas joint. Still, there’s something to be said for playing to your strengths. And there are loads on Elefante’s menu. If creamy burratta cheese shingled with truffle slices and wreathed with arugula and green cherry tomatoes won’t convince you then maybe a 24-hour sous vide beef short rib will.
Is it the best Italian I’ve ever had? No. But with a few underwhelming exceptions the menu offers plenty of unique surprises. Calamari with squid ink aioli and a daub of cod roe comes to mind, for instance. Or, better yet, how about a pork short rib the size of a baseball bat that’s been steeped in spiced brine overnight before it’s slow-roasted for three hours and then basted with honey and crusted with fennel seeds? But what really impresses me about Scarpetta is its back-story. By his own admission, owner John Liu has zero experience running a restaurant. He’s just a banker with a food hobby. To create Scarpetta, he parlayed his experience in equity research, poring over thousands of recipes much in the same way an investor does with securities prospectuses and P&L reports, “evaluating them in terms of seasonality, local preferences and tastes [and] cost,” to use his words. The guy even studied PhD theses on bread making, and if you’ve ever had one of his pizzas it shows.
This pizzeria / steakhouse from the team behind Matto and Issimo gets a spot on the list simply for it's uncompromising vision. To meet the strict classification standards for pizza Napoletana, Executive Chef Enzo Carbone had the bricks and mortar for his ovens shipped in from Italy. Then he paid an Italian artisan and his apprentice son to build it. Does it make Carbone's pizza and steaks better? Who knows. Would I notice the difference if the oven were made by a Chinese day laborer? Probably not. Still, his pizzas are excellent. His steaks are pretty tasty too. What can I say, I'm a sucker for this stuff.
It was hard not to roll my eyes when I learned that Jean Georges Vongerichten was opening an Italian restaurant in an already saturated market, harder still when I learned that Neri & Hu were designing it (that reclaimed wood and exposed concrete thing is starting to get out of hand). But Mercato has made me fall in love with Italian food again. Each dish here is an expression of sincere reverence for the cuisine adhering to the twin tenets that make it so great: freshness and simplicity. But it’s not just tired old studies from the Italian. It’s fresh and innovative without being unorthodox. It’s subtle outside-the-box flavor combinations like ricotta cheese topped with a savory strawberry preserve smeared on sticks of toasted sourdough. It’s pizzas inspired by both sides of the Atlantic, New York and the Old Country. More importantly, considering the Bund address, the prices are eminently reasonable.
When Pairet started talking this restaurant up in 2009 I had my doubts. How can you take someone seriously when he says he plans to replicate the sensory experience of the ocean when you order sea bass? That it took nearly three years to even get the concept off the ground wasn’t reassuring either. But in the end I was wrong; he pulled it off. With a vengeance. Ultraviolet could very easily have ended up being a joyless exercise in pretentious cuisine, the ramblings of a chef’s unchecked ego. But it is just so damn fun! It’s equal parts theater, satire and performance art. Most the food stands on its own. Strip away the fancy bells and whistles and you’ve still got technically flawless, artfully executed, truly inspired dinner. It is hands down the highlight of 2012, and so far I don’t see any contenders on the horizon for 2013 either.