A SECOND generation of Italian restaurants has been quietly taking shape all over Singapore.
While the first wave tended to be located in town, the second one is finding its niche in quiet neighbourhood areas, some so well-hidden diners are hard put to find them.
|Italian fare in the neighbourhood
Galbiati Gourmet Deli
Where: 400 Upper Bukit Timah Road, The Rail Mall, Tel: 6462-0926
Open: 10am to 10pm daily
Try: Antipasto, ranging from $7 for potato salad to $15 for parma ham
Where: 3 Chu Lin Road, Bamboo Grove Park, off Hillview Avenue, Tel: 6877-1986
Open: Tuesdays to Sundays, 11.30am to 2.30pm and 6.30 to 10.30pm
Try: Home-made Fagottino pasta stuffed with pear and gorgonzola cheese, $24
Buono Pizza Bar & Italian Restaurant
Where: 27 Lichfield Road, Serangoon Garden Estate, Tel: 6733-5646
Open: Mondays to Saturdays, noon to 2.30pm, 6 to 10.30pm, Sundays, 10am to 2.30pm, 6 to 10.30pm
Try: Buono pizza, with mushrooms, home-made sausages, cherry tomatoes and rocket salad in cream sauce, $22
Where: 443 MacPherson Road, Tel: 6288-3009
Open: Tuesdays to Sundays, 11.30am to 10pm
Try: Squid ink pasta with scallops and prawns in white wine sauce, $18
In the last year alone, at least four of such joints have opened. They are La Noce in Chu Lin Road off Hillview Avenue, Galbiati Gourmet in Eng Kong Terrace in Upper Bukit Timah, Buono Pizza Bar & Italian Restaurant in Lichfield Road in Serangoon Gardens, and Finalmente Gastronomia in MacPherson Road.
These small, cosy eateries were opened mostly by Italian chefs who used to cook for restaurants in the city but who now want to offer posh food and what fancier places lack - a personal touch.
Take La Noce, sandwiched between a 7-Eleven store and Al-Ameen Eating House, a coffee shop serving Thai and Indian-Muslim food.
The decidedly unglitzy locale was just what chef-owner Salvatore Catalano was looking for.
The Sicilian chef used to cook in such restaurants as Fuenti in River Valley and L'Antipasto in Namly Place before he decided to open his own place six months ago.
He says: 'This is an opportunity for people who don't live in town to have good food.'
His simply furnished restaurant, which seats just 40, is a far cry from the days when he was in charge of a kitchen serving 300 diners. Yet he says he prefers working at a small place in the suburbs because 'my customers become my friends'.
He spends much of his time chatting with customers and even takes orders and makes food and wine recommendations.
While his prices are about the same as those in bigger restaurants in town, the 43-year-old says customers don't mind paying for the personal attention he gives them.
Business is so good - he has a full house nearly every night - that he plans to open an Italian cafe by next year, also in a residential area.
Roberto Galbiati, 38, owner of two-year-old Galbiati Gourmet Deli at the Rail Mall in Upper Bukit Timah, too, has expanded his business.
Just a month ago, he opened a take-out and home-delivery outlet, Galbiati Gourmet, in Eng Kong Terrace, also in Upper Bukit Timah.
He says: 'In the beginning, business was slow. People started to accept the concept of this kind of food outside of places such as town and Holland Village only after about a year. Luckily, I managed to survive that.'
His deli, which serves pastas, pizzas and antipasto, seats just 35 but customers are in and out all day long.
'My takeaway is for families who want to have a nice meal at home and don't want to spend too much eating out,' he says.
Salvatore Buono, 43, was on holiday here six years ago when he fell in love with a Singaporean.
'Unfortunately, the relationship didn't work out,' he says.
But the chef, who used to run Enotria Italian Wine Bar & Restaurant in China Square, is now the owner of a thriving, one-year-old restaurant called Buono Pizza Bar & Italian Restaurant in Serangoon Gardens.
He found the neighbourhood location after closing his restaurant when the rent went up by 50 per cent.
With the lower overheads, he has been able to reduce prices.
'I have a lot more fun now, entertaining my customers,' he says. 'I get to be interactive. I let my regular customers try new dishes and, if the response is good, we put it on the menu.'
Support from the neighbourhood is what keeps his and the other restaurants going, although he points out that 'they wouldn't keep coming back if the food wasn't good'.
Yet another neighbourhood joint is Finalmente Gastronomia in MacPherson Road, which opened in November last year.
Chef-owner Fabrizio Cantarella, 46, formerly the owner of Al Forno at East Coast and Thomson Road before he sold both outlets, looked for a small, hidden spot to start his own gastronomia, to offer the same kind of good food that neighbourhoods in Italy offer.
'In bigger restaurants, there are problems with the staff and lighting. I didn't want to go through that anymore.'
Now, with fewer staff and lower overheads, he says he can afford to lower his prices by up to $10 a dish without compromising quality.
'I have the freedom to cook different things every day,' he says. 'It's all about creating an environment where everybody is friendly and all the ingredients are fresh.'
Pioneers of the neighbourhood Italian restaurant concept are welcoming the new players.
Chef Valentino Valtulina, 33, used to cook at Italian restaurant Cantina in Greenleaf Road near Holland Road, but opened the wildly successful Ristorante Da Valentino in Rifle Range Road three years ago. He says more options for diners is a good thing.
'Many people work in town, they don't want to stay there and eat afterwards, especially when drink driving is so dangerous,' he says. 'People can walk to the restaurant from home and drink all they want with their meal.'
Fabio Iannona, owner of four-year-old La Braceria Pizza and Grill in Greenleaf Road, will have to move out in the coming months as the building his restaurant is in was sold en bloc.
And, yes, he is looking for a neighbourhood location.
The 33-year-old says: 'It's always good when you can find good food in a relaxing environment. I believe in running one restaurant and doing well, rather than running many and struggling.'
And it isn't just residents nearby who like the idea of dining in a neighbourhood Italian restaurant.
Banker Joe-Ann Lee, 32, who was at La Noce last Thursday afternoon, had driven 30 minutes from her home in Woodlands to try the food after hearing about it from a friend.
'Like most Singaporeans, I don't mind travelling for good food,' she says. 'It's great when you find a gem like this tucked in the middle of nowhere that's not overly commercialised, and where the staff are friendly.'