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[Pasta Quest]: One Man's Two Month Mission to Find the Best Pasta in Shanghai

St. Cavish journeys into the heart of carbness.
Mar 20, 2019 | 11:00 Wed
Photos: Brandon McGhee

It started with a lasagna and it ended with a lasagna. I was at an Italian family restaurant that’s been around for ages. It’s deep in a lane, packed seven nights a week, a neighborhood staple. I ordered a drink and a lasagna. The lasagna, an average mushy square of sauce and cheese, made it to the table before the drink, and the drink didn’t take long. It was hot as lava and crusty as a wet towel. Telltale signs of the microwave.

My date had an arrabbiata, so bland it couldn’t be saved by any of the types of chili on offer. I hoped to salvage dinner with a focaccia. The “focaccia” turned out to be pizza dough dusted with dried herbs. I shouldn’t say — fuck it, it was Bella Napoli — but this type of mediocre cooking passed off as home-style Italian is disappointingly prevalent in Shanghai. So I set off on a mission to find better pasta, to leave the Bella Napolis of the world behind, a quest, you might call it, for carbs.

A Pasta Quest.

The rules of the Quest were simple. First, I’d try a range of Bella Napoli’s competitors. If they couldn’t do better, I’d keep going up in price. In total, I visited 15 Italian restaurants in the last couple of weeks, going incognito and paying my way through all of them, even when dinners reached four figures per person. The Quest wouldn’t be comprehensive — it’s not another dumpling guide — but it would be exhaustive. As in, I’d be exhausted of pasta.

And it worked. I found some excellent pastas. But first I found a whole lot of disappointment.

Da Marco is the king. Of what, exactly, is the question. I’ve been a dozen times over the years, but went back in March on a mission. Among the 25 pastas on the menu, could I find one to recommend? I asked a Chinese chef, a talented guy who has worked in both Da Marco and several high-end Italian restaurants, what to order. He said this.

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He was wrong about one thing. The orecchiette weren’t great either. The cacio e pepe, an extremely simple dish but one that shows clearly how much skill the kitchen has, was an abject failure. The kitchen didn’t even bother trying to make a sauce out of the cheese, black pepper and cooking water; instead it was buttered pasta with a pile of cheese on top. The white lamb ragu on thick paccheri looked like finely diced cat vomit. It got worse from there. I wouldn’t call it inauthentic though: Italy, a lovely country, has awful restaurants as well. My meal left me with two questions about Da Marco, which has been going strong for close to two decades now. One: why is it full of Italians when the food is so aggressively average? Two: who painted the two-meter tall oil painting of King Marco hanging by the staircase?

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I tried Palatino, a “Roman” restaurant with not a single Roman pasta on the menu.

I went to Porto Matto, where chef Roberto Bernasconi from Puglia served me a soupy bowl of tomato sauce masquerading as pasta a la chitarra, cut with the “guitar” strings (Scialatelli alla calabrese, 120rmb).

At Meanwhile in Xintiandi, the chefs likewise confused the concept of soup and sauce, serving me a carbonara flooded with a bright yellow egg emulsion, like eating a raw frittata (Roman Carbonara al Guanciale, 98rmb). I hoped for more from a three-meat tomato ragu (Tagliatelle Tre Carni, 148rmb), especially with the big-name chef the Pizza Express people have imported for this project. What I got was another tomato sauce with grey cubes of poached meat that tasted their color.

The marquee name chef stood in front of the pass, gossiping and back-slapping the customers, and the marquee name bartender sat at the bar at 8.30pm on a Saturday night eating staff dinner.

Meanwhile in Xintiandi, another disappointing meal was had.

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The homey entrance to Casa Mia

I really wanted to like Casa Mia. The ramshackle and must-be-illegal little restaurant, hidden around the back of the Donghu Hotel (go until you are sure it’s not there, and then go a little further), has undeniable charm and charisma. Run by a husband-and-wife team who used to work at Dolce Vita, above Funkadeli, it’s a jumbled cave of a restaurant. Some of the seats are Ikea folding chairs, there is no menu (so you never know prices either, argh), and there’s not even a door between the kitchen, the bathroom sink and the dining room. There’s not a second restaurant in Shanghai like it.

Too bad their homemade tagliatelle was overcooked and their ravioli absent of flavor. The lesson there was that kitchens aren’t fueled by charm.

I was agnostic going into Bistro Sola, which I thought was an Italian restaurant run by a Japanese chef down near Zhaojiabang Lu. I left fuming, exasperated and cussing after a four-hour ordeal for four (tiny) courses.

Everything about the restaurant, spread over three floors, was a disaster except for the food, which was quite competent, but turned out to be Italian but also French but also Japanese but also whatever they felt like.

It’s easier to talk about what was missing, like any type of service — a table opposite ours asked the sole waiter if he was actually withholding silverware from him after three courses of forgetting — and music. The dead silent room collectively seethed as we were held hostage by the four-course tasting menu (bless the table who opted for seven courses and are probably still there) until finally one diner had the sense to open up an app on his phone and start playing his own jazz playlist for the room.

The consensus seems to be that the chef was already stretched thin before he won a Black Pearl award, and now that he has achieved one and his business has rocketed, everything else has fallen apart. Since I went, he has discontinued the tasting menus. Probably for the best. Nice ox-tail tortellini though.

The Black Pearl has changed the fortunes of another restaurant’s pasta, but this time for the better. Scarpetta, an Italian trattoria south of Xujiahui Lu, also won the award in 2018.

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The orecchiette with tomato sauce and bone marrow

The effect has been a doubling of their business, and a doubling-down by their chef, Patrick Leano, on the pasta station. Since the win, the kitchen has gotten so busy, Leano told me, that he’s been thrust onto the pasta station himself, one of the harder positions in the kitchen, and so, counter-intuitively, the award has probably improved the quality of the restaurant’s noodles. (No disrespect to the previous pasta chefs, but Leano has a serious fine-dining background and is an accomplished kitchen hand.)

Things started to turn around for me on this Quest around the time of my most recent meal at Scarpetta, which included three pastas: an orecchiette with tomato sauce and bone marrow (188rmb); a lobster linguine (228rmb); and a fennel sausage paccheri (138rmb). All were excellent.

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Fennel sausage paccheri

There is one criticism of Scarpetta however, and it’s unlike any other on this list: too much flavor. In the past year, the owner and chef together have revamped the menu to make every dish really ‘pop’, but to my taste, they have made some of them too intense. What is exciting on the first bite becomes intense on the second and overwhelming by the fourth. It’s as if, in their ramping up the intensity on all the dishes, they forgot that people are not just tasting one or two bites, but eating the entire thing, and an ultra-condensed flavor bomb is hard to get through.

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Lobster linguine

It’s the difference between a fresh tomato and sun-dried tomato. Still, the argument is basically that it’s too much of a good thing, and Scarpetta is a good thing.

After Scarpetta, I headed over to the twin Italians at Taikoo Hui, Frasca at the Middle House and La Scala at The Sukhothai. (I also stopped into Zizzi, a British Italian chain trying to crack the market with vaguely Italian food, but had to send my food back to the kitchen.)

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La Scala is the playground of chef Stefano Sanna from Piemonte, who moved from Italy to Shanghai in 2017. His first menu was a bit experimental — cacio e pepe was done with a parmesan foam and cocoa — but on his new second menu, he’s toned things down. Sanna’s food is characterized by lightness, and where Scarpetta has a tendency to shout its flavors, La Scala’s pastas speak in whispers. The flavors are often mild, leaving room to taste the actual pasta, an intentional decision on Sanna’s part, especially in pastas like his linguine with fresh tuna and mint (linguine “Rigorosa”, 128rmb) or his spaghettone with tomato (spaghettone “Pastificio Mancini”, 108rmb).

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Ravioli del plin

Not so true on his ravioli del plin, a Piemonte-style ravioli stuffed with king crab and dressed with an emulsion of lobster coral, dill and butter (148rmb). It reminded me of the all-crab soup dumplings at Jia Jia Tang Bao, an intense burst of shellfish flavor.

Also good: the ravioli ripieni di agnello, a longer, pinched tube filled with braised lamb shoulder, mashed with mascarpone, thyme, rosemary and Parmesan to make a super-creamy filling (128rmb). Set onto tiny dollops of mashed potatoes, with slices of black truffle and all kinds of colorful garnish, it’s more a composed plate than a bowl of pasta.

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Ravioli ripieni di agnello

Sanna has a thing for shaking every customer’s hand. Ciao.

Just across the way is Frasca. I went once to try it on SmartShanghai’s expense account and liked the pastas so much I’ve been back four times on my own. I’ve eaten all of them. Except for the one with the tiny, toy meatballs, I’ve ordered all of them a second, third or fourth time as well.

The man in the kitchen here is Marino D’Antonio, who moved to Shanghai in December after six and half years running Opera Bombana in Beijing, the sister restaurant to Shanghai and Hong Kong’s 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana. D’Antonio has revamped the kitchen by cutting the menu way down and trying to focus more strongly on what’s left (as well as rotating more specials in and out). In the production kitchen, he has both the traditional pasta-sheeting machine, to make pappardelle, lasagna sheets, and tagliatelle (for which he uses Japanese egg, flour and semolina), as well as the less-common extruder to make his own macaroni and trottole (just Japanese egg and semolina).

The highlight of the pasta section is the duck ragu on pappardelle (Pappardelle al Ragu di Anatra, 128rmb), made with duck sautéed in duck fat, plus duck stock finished with extra virgin olive oil, garlic oil, and a garden’s worth of herbs.

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Duck ragu on pappardelle

Also excellent here: the classic lasagna, made with seven or eight sheets of thin homemade pasta (Lasagna al Forno, 148rmb); and the homemade, chewy trottole spirals with pesto, almond and ricotta salata (108rmb).

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The trottole

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The seven layers of lasagna

My trips to Frasca have not been without incident. Sometimes the service stumbles. But for the combination of location, price and D’Antonio’s pastas, Frasca is a real highlight.

As I moved away from the lower-end places and gave up trying to find pasta that was both good and cheap (it exists but only at home), I ended someplace once doesn’t usually think about for mid-range pasta: The Bund.

Perennially overlooked, probably for its corporate background (which I promised the chef I wouldn’t mention), Atto Primo is a favorite among a few other western chefs I know. On my three visits, the dining room could have sat all of the western chefs in Shanghai in its empty seats. And that’s a shame. Because the chef of Atto Primo, Gianluca Serafin, is cooking a roster of pastas different from anyone else in the city: tiny chewy shells with a strong sauce of octopus, capers and cherry tomatoes (Gnocchetti Sardi, 138rmb); pici with a deeply savory wild boar ragu (Pici al Ragu Grossolano di Cinghiale alla Toscana, 138rmb); agnolotti with veal jus and black truffle (Agnolotti Monferrini, 168rmb); and pumpkin tortelli with butter and sage (Tortelli di Zucca alla Mantovana, 148rmb). All excellent.

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Agnolotti with veal jus and black truffle

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Pici with wild boar ragu

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Pumpkin tortelli with butter and sage

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The bright orange pumpkin filling

The ragu was the intense, meaty sauce I had been looking for, not watered down with tomato, and the agnolotti are rich with a sticky veal reduction. All were cooked al dente, as they should be.

Serafin came from the high-end Palladio restaurant that used to be at the Ritz Carlton in Shanghai Center, which explains the talent. Like D’Antonio at Frasca, Serafin is another Italian chef who escaped the fine-dining world, to the benefit of Shanghai’s noodle eaters. Go to Atto Primo. Give him some credit.

Finally, my quest took me to the fine-dining zoos, where the Italian chefs remain in their gilded dining room cages, finding new and novel ways to make food more expensive. This was a world away from Bella Napoli, a world where a bottle of water cost more than a full pasta at Da Marco.

First up was 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, the province of chef Riccardo La Perna, who runs the kitchen at this highly formal Michelin two-star room. I had a plate of ham, four pastas and a drink. The bill was 2,500rmb, not counting the 500rmb in desserts (8 ½ Signature Tiramisu: 238rmb) the restaurant comp’ed us for no discernible reason except a strange reference to a “thing” they all knew about. Did my PastaQuest precede me? Did someone betray me, blowing my carefully crafted disguise as “scruffy late-thirties guy who still wears jeans and sneakers to fancy dinners”?

I doubt it, because, by all accounts, the food is as reliably good as the prices are high. And they are punishing. My favorite touch about the restaurant is the little balcony they have on the sixth floor for you to jump off after receiving your bill. Very considerate.

In all seriousness, the pastas were outstanding, from the cavatelli with king crab, lobster and sea urchin, (368rmb), to a Verrigni (a crazy pasta brand known for things like square macaroni) chitarra with sea urchin and almond (298rmb) and a deeply flavored lamb ragout with handmade “sagne” pasta (268rmb). Those were all standouts in their own right, the quality of produce and ingredients obvious from the first bite, and the cooking as layered and luxe as can be, but to really drive the nail home, we added a dish from the tasting menu, the black truffle taglioni.

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Chef La Perna shaving truffles onto his buttered and cheese'd taglioni

As rich as the price tag (488rmb), the pasta came out fragrant with cheese and butter, and was then showered in 20 grams of black truffle by a Italian man in a dark suit wearing a single white glove. It was a spectacle. For that price, he could have sang and danced as well. Not that I would have noticed; visions of black Perigord truffle obscured my eyesight. In the end, with all the freebies, from the first mozzarella foam to the last fruit jelly, the two of us were almost full to boot.

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Homemade cavatelli with seafood soup

A few days later, I went back, unmasked, to talk to chef La Perna about his cooking, and what I found instilled a deep admiration, and a sense of incredulity at the extravagance of it all. His taglioni, the pasta under the truffles, is made with 40 Japanese egg yolks per kilo of semolina flour, and, in its raw state, is as fluorescent orange as fresh crab roe.

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The 40-yolk taglioni in the foreground

Add to that ridiculously expensive artisanal parmesan, a mushroom broth that squeezes the souls out of nine types of mushrooms, and home-made butter that has been made with milk infused with the trimmings from the several kilos of black truffles that the restaurant goes through each week. (Black truffle season will end in about a week, so if you are keen to experience this, hurry.)

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Lamb ragu with "sagne" pasta

Every dish is like that. The broth for the cavatelli, an intense seafood reduction, is made from three stocks: a fish stock, a crustacean broth (scampi, crab, lobster), and a shellfish broth (clams, mussels and razor clams). The lamb with "sagne" pasta is similarly complex. The minute I walked into the kitchen, the pasta maker happened to be twirling each individual noodle around a thin metal rod to turn them into spirals. The luxury here extends to labor and ingredients. Everything about the place is over-the-top.

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The "sagne", each noodle twisted by hand individually

After Alipay unlocked my account for excessive carb-related spending, I headed to the 47th floor of the Bvlgari Hotel for one last hurrah. High above the city, the lights of Shanghai’s skyscrapers were the only color in the minimalist black-and-mirrored space. Even breathing up there felt expensive, like you were going to be charged for the privilege.

With Otto e Mezzo successfully behind me, I attempted the same formula with Il Ristorante Niko Romito: a starter and four laughably expensive pastas, FTW. I didn’t care for the starter or the first pasta, a terribly uniform maltagliati (meant to be the rough off-cuts of pasta sheets) in a brown, shrimpy broth with the inexplicable addition of diced lettuce floating on the surface (Brodo di scampi con maltagliati, 227rmb).

But things quickly picked up and chef Davide Capucchio’s kitchen got it together, sending a simple but outstanding tortelli with butter and sage (Tortelli di ricotta e spinaci, 342rmb) and a creamy duck ragu showered with curled shavings of black truffle (Fettuccelle al ragout di anatra, 348rmb).

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The seamless pots of spinach and ricotta tortelli

That brought me to the final dish on my Quest, a 51 usd lasagna, as conceived by Niko Romito, a three-star chef, and executed by Il Ristorante, which, notably, curiously, won a Michelin star in 2018 after being open for two months.

As I waited for the last course, I had a moment to reflect. What did I learn? What did we all learn from this quest, this Pasta Quest? Not that I'm a snob — that was clear before I started this. The most interesting take-away is that, if Bella Napoli and its friends form the base of the pyramid, and Otto e Mezzo and Il Ristorante are the sharp peak, there are more and more restaurants in the middle. Il Ristorante makes a damn good lasagna and Otto e Mezzo is just unabashed extravagance but 350rmb pastas were not what I set out for. Instead, I found the best value at the new breed of restaurants with chefs who have moved out of ivory towers (Palladio, Mandarin Oriental, Opera Bombana) and into affordable, comfortable restaurants (Atto Primo, Scarpetta, Frasca). For a small premium over the Bella Napolis, there is good cooking by proper chefs in nice settings. Consider this Quest, accomplished.

The Niko Romito lasagana wasn’t just any lasagna, but rather a slice off a layered loaf, as if made in a terrine mold, wrapped in pasta sheets, and then cut to show off the layers, stacked like books on their side (La Lasagna, 342rmb). The veal bolognaise was rich and meaty, the béchamel as light as whipped cream, the tomato sweetly tart, and the service fawning and indulgent.

This lasagna, I’m assured, had never met a microwave.

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