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First Bite: Atto Primo

By Jun 4, 2015 Dining
Yum! Brands, a corporation better known for its fast-food chains KFC and Pizza Hut, recently opened its first ever high-end experiment, in Shanghai, at Bund 5. That's the same imposing address where Ruth's Chris and M on the Bund lay -- a lovely piece of tourist and date bait that directly overlooks the Huangpu river and Lujiazui.

Chef de cuisine is Gianluca Serafin, who headed the kitchen at Palladio in the Portman Ritz Carlton for five years before that restaurant shuttered. Then some head honchos at Yum who liked Serafin's work at the Ritz approached him for a fine dining concept on the Bund.

Their aim: erect an eatery with tasteful digs and a reasonably priced menu of well-executed, straightforward Italian food that would appeal to both Chinese and Western palates. Serafin insists that the swish Bund location does not mean sophistication and complex cuisine. He points to a tuna salad with white beans and sliced onions as an example of the kind of down-to-earth casual fare that people in Italy would eat any day of the week.

So...concept. Atto Primo means "first act" in Italian, a nod to theater that shows up more in the decor than the dishes. At the entrance, spools of business cards mimick theater tickets. The large dining area has three sections: Sonetto, Drama, and Satira. The first is the most casual, with a highway of sonnets scrawled on the ceiling. In the enclosed, slightly more intimate Drama, commedia dell'arte masks dangle from above. Satira is at the back. Something about how it's the most open area of the space, with a big open kitchen facing the diners. Because satire is meant to be real, expose the truth and all that.

No foie gras or flourishes of fusion food here. Dishes are simple and hearty. If you order the right things from the menu -- an extensive one covering many regions -- then chances are you'll have a satisfying meal. A Tuscan chicken liver terrine (88rmb) has the light, fluffy texture of mousse and a nice umami that doesn't overwhelm the fragrant, fresh bread it comes with. See that spiced apple jelly? Best not to ignore it. Adds a nice, warm earthiness.

Here's Atto Primo's "filetti di peperone" (88rmb), an appetizer of roasted bell peppers wrapped around a bread-based stuffing over a foundation of coarsely blended eggs. It's an underwhelming follow-up to liver and jelly -- the kind of thing you'd order for that person in your party who's suffering from gout.

Atto Primo does the standard tomato and pesto sauces for their dozens of pastas, but some regional specialities branch out from those base flavors. A broccoli and sausage orecchiette (118rmb) is tasty, albeit on the mild side. For those who prefer a more piquant pasta, the pici alla Toscana (148rmb) -- a thick, handmade spaghetti with a pork ragout -- has a beautifully rich and dense flavor. It is fragrant, musky (in a good way) and excellently balances the taste of woodsy vegetables and robust meat.

Larger cuts of red meat, which Serafin tells us is mostly imported from Australia, get cooked in a wood-burning grill. We didn't try the pizza, but apparently they're somewhere between thin crust and chewy Neapolitan-style -- not too doughy, not too thin.

Even five percent into the menu, Atto Primo looks like a solid addition to Bund-side dining. Mercato and 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo are fine and well, but for those who want the basics of Italian food, and not the modern twists, then there you have it. Atto Primo could be a reliably good place for that. So...not much association between Yum! Brands' other restaurants and this one, in case you were wondering. Here's a big one, though: no service charges.

Atto Primo - Bund 5, 2/F, 20 Guangdong Lu. Full listing here.



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