Regional Italian cuisine may be in short supply in Hong Kong, but that changes with the opening of Sepa Bacaro Veneziano. CHRISTINA KO bites into a slice of the Venetian life
WHAT WOULD LIFE in Hong Kong be like with no xiao long bao? What would spice fiends do to satiate their chilli cravings without a big bubbling vat of Sichuan hot pot? How much would we miss that depth of flavour in a bowl of Taiwanese beef noodles if we were denied access to it henceforth? Cantonese food may form the backbone of Chinese cuisine, but it’s the regional variations that give it breadth and character.
This, argues Giacomo Marzotto, is the problem with Italian cuisine in Hong Kong. We may be home to the only Italian restaurant outside Italy with three Michelin stars, we may regularly see Italian chefs of the highest order visiting to host one-off gigs at the top establishments, we may even have developed a little bit of our own subculture mixing Italian staples with Hong Kong techniques or ingredients (Lung King Heen’s puntalette fried rice is a high-end example, though the influence stretches down to Hong Kong-style baked spaghetti Bolognese served at cha chan tengs), but save for a few watered-down examples, our city is home to only the most cookie-cutter authentic Italian institutions. Bistecca alla Fiorentina – steak Florentine – you may find on a menu easily, but what of Tuscany’s hearty ribollita stew? Sicilian arancinis find their way onto tables at restaurants both Italian and otherwise, but a square, doughy Sicilian pizza is much harder to sniff out, even with the proliferation of those “New York Italian” establishments backed by Americans of Sicilian roots.
So Marzotto set out to launch a restaurant that would not only fill the gap – at least for his hometown of Venice, a city whose culinary background is near unknown here – but would offer diners the experience they want today: to be able to eat a meal more quickly, but still eat well; to experience quality without stuffiness; to dine on small plates and sharing portions rather than mineonly proprietary platters. “Conviviality, sharing, trying many different things – this is what we believe is the new trend, because people want to try different things. They want to eat in a faster way, but they don’t want to compromise the experience,” he says.
But while Marzotto had the Italian connections (he hails from the family behind the Marzotto Group, best known as having owned Hugo Boss and Valentino, the latter of which employed him until he started his restaurant venture), he needed the restaurant knowhow to execute his plan, which he found in his F&B partner Gerald Li, who currently runs Catalunya, the lauded Catalonian institution staffed by elBulli alumni.
The result is Sepa Bacaro Veneziano, a modern Venetian restaurant that transformed the space once held by Café O on Caine Road into a theatre for cichetti, the Italian “tapas” typically consumed with wine in bacaros in the northeastern city.
“The name [Sepa] means cuttlefish, in the Venetian dialect, instead of ‘seppia’ in Italian,” says Marzotto. “It’s to stress the regionality.” The moniker is also a hint at the fare, which, as is to be expected for a coastal city, is heavy in seafood. To handle the ingredients, Marzotto enlisted Enrico Bartolini, a man whose modern interpretations of traditional Venetian cuisine made him the youngest Michelin-starred chef in Italy.
His menu features some classics, such as a spaghetti alle vongole packed with flavour, but also more inventive interpretations, such as a beetroot tartare and tuna with Jerusalem artichoke sauce. The presentation of that dish is so modern it looks molecular – it’s not, thank God, but the combination of beetroot and tuna is so unthought-of that the resulting harmony is not just surprising, but surprisingly simple. The idea, says Marzotto, took elements from both the vitello tonnato, a dish of veal slices slathered in a tunamayonnaise sauce, and a Russian salad, with its staple ingredient of beetroot. “They go on a date. Then they get the best part of each other and this is their love child. So you have the freshness of the beetroot and then you have the tuna, and the Jerusalem sauce, and it’s kind of a lighter version of both plates.”
Those missing the veal element will be more than happy to indulge instead in a veal cheek and parmigiano ravioli with butter and thyme, oozing little pasta pillows cooked al dente. There’s also Sepa’s miniature “pizzas”, focaccia breads slightly larger in diameter than a compact disc (Parma ham and burrata is a crowd-pleasing combo, but the anchovies, tomatoes and stracciatella is as moreish as anything), or for another take on the bread-with-toppings idea, there’s a mortadella- and ricotta-cheese-stuffed bomba with black truffle that’s essentially Sepa’s Italian translation of Catalunya’s cult-favourite Bikini sandwich, the latter using Iberico ham, mozzarella and sliced truffle. Then there’s the fish – sweet and sour sardines with simmered onions sound rustic but are presented as beautifully carved branches of breaded fish interspersed with artful drops of puree. The Venetian-style fried fish is the simpler sister, a paper cone stuffed with battered catch of the day, much as it would be laid out if you were eating in the city of canals.
Much of the wine list features exclusive Italian wines, thanks to Marzotto’s connections in the Italian region – his family has interests in the wine business, too. Try a glass of bubbly 2008 Dosage Zéro from Ca’del Bosco, or the rich 1997 Tenuta San Leonardo. The cocktail list is a taut eight drinks, including a Bellini, Rosemary Spritz, two versions of Negronis and the Florindo Mojito, an artichoke-embellished cocktail that plays into a little of the Venetian lore adopted by Sepa. Much of the branding is inspired by Carlo Goldoni’s play Servant of Two Masters, incorporating the various players and their characteristics into parts of the restaurant. Florindo, for example – “the drunk murderer”, paraphrases Marzotto – gets his own cocktail, with a hint of bitterness that makes it “the perfect cure for Florindo’s hangovers”, who’s clearly into that whole hair-of-the-dog thing.
The hungry protagonist Truffaldino and his love interest Smereldina adorn the men’s and women’s bathroom doors respectively, but the design influence extends further than that, too. Cabinets set above the first floor of the bi-level restaurant are categorised by character – Truffaldino’s is filled with pots and pans so he can satiate his hunger; Florindo’s with empty wine bottles; Beatrice’s, who dresses up as her brother in the play, with the Venetian masks she uses to obscure her identity; Clarice’s with books whose spines read “Sepa” and which were specially created by a fifthgeneration Venetian book-binder. Venice, Marzotto explains, was in the 15th century the printing capital of Europe, a piece of historical trivia that clearly delights him.
In fact, if the devil is in the details, it’s quite possible that Marzotto is the devil himself. The glee spills from his eyes as he describes with pride the scent diffusers made by a ceramicist that has been in business since 1695, the glass windows created by the same artisans that work on Venetian palazzos, the hand-made 1961 coffee machine that “costs like a small car” and that’s only available from one man: “Not only do you have to buy [from him] but you have to go and restore it from his guy. He’s the only one in Italy. Also, the type of coffee blend, he decided for us. We are the only ones with this Giamaica Santos Afribon. It’s strong in character, but also elegant and easy to drink. So we’re the only ones in all of Asia that has this producer.” For each element and item, an eminent artisan has been specifically sought out and commissioned.
Just to the right of this legendary coffee machine and in front of the door leading to the terrace is a shelf with a capsule collection of take-home items – olive oil, tomato sauce – bearing Sepa’s branding. Marzotto isn’t merely concerned with your experience within the restaurant – he wants you to take a piece of it, and Venice, home, too.
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