BY THE time he was eight, Italian chef Carlo Marengoni already knew what his calling in life was.
'I wanted to be a chef because I wanted to travel,' says the chef patron of Ristorante Bologna in Marina Mandarin hotel.
Born in Bergamo, a small town near Milan, he enrolled in a cooking school at the age of 14 and went on to work all over Italy.
In 1995, when he was asked by a friend to cook in Singapore's Fratini restaurant in Neil Road, he agreed - and his wanderlust ended here.
'I love it here. It's vibrant, fast changing and there's no other place that offers this quality of life,' says the cheery, obliging 41-year-old bachelor who enjoys tennis and salsa dancing.
After Fratini, he cooked for the acclaimed Domvs restaurant in Sheraton Towers hotel for six years, opened his own restaurant Bacco in Bukit Timah for three years and joined Ristorante Bologna last June.
Now a Singapore permanent resident who, as he says, 'knows all the Hokkien bad words', he has no plans to leave.
Do Italians or Singaporeans eat more?
Singaporeans. Italians spend a lot of time at the table, but it's not just to fill our stomachs. We sit down, relax, talk about our problems and release stress. It's our way of life. But Singaporeans really eat. You don't see hawker centres in Italy that are open all day. Here, people eat all day and night.
What is your favourite Singapore dish?
Almost everything. I wasn't very adventurous when I first got here. But over the past three years, I've been eating all over, including hawker centres. I love wonton noodles, xiaolongbao (steamed pork dumplings) and dimsum. I like the beef kway teow in East Coast Food Village and the whole row of restaurants along Havelock Road.
How do you rate the standard of Italian food here?
It is good, but there are no regional restaurants specialising in, for example, cuisines from Piedmont or Tuscany. Because when Singaporeans go to an Italian restaurant, they expect different cuisines under one roof and they want standard fare like carbonara and bolognaise.
What's one Italian dish that you miss very much?
Polenta (ground cornmeal). In Bergamo, the typical way of serving it is with oven-baked small birds - which are now banned in Italy - sausage, bacon and sage. The bird is so crunchy and you can eat everything except the beak.
What dish are you most famous for?
Squid ink tonnarelli (spaghetti with square cross section, right) with seafood - marinated in orange juice - and cherry tomatoes. It's a Sicilian dish and the orange juice is used to add sweetness and enhance the freshness of the seafood.
What food reminds you of childhood?
Fried eggs. I love eggs. I remember once when I was young, I took six or seven boiled eggs to church during Easter for them to be blessed, which was the custom. But I didn't bring any back home because I ate them all along the way. Another time, I lied to my mother that a doctor said I must eat three eggs a day, so that she'd make me more eggs. She didn't believe me.
What do you usually eat at home?
Just fruit. I have to be healthy because I eat at the restaurant every day. I also don't like to cook at home, so I just have fruit or sandwiches. Every morning I will make a fruit smoothie. This morning I had pineapple, papaya and mango. It's very nice.
What's the secret to making good pasta?
It's all about feeling - how much salt you put in the water, how long you cook it. It's very personal. Two people following the same recipe will end up cooking it differently. It all comes with practice, experience and how much you love your pasta.
What's one cooking tip your grandmother taught you?
Take your time. Everything has its own time. If you rush, it won't come out the right way. Also, it's not about how you cook but how happy you make the people who eat your food. For me, the best feeling I get is when I see customers walking out with a smile on their faces.
What would your last meal be?
'A salami sandwich with homemade bread and good Italian salami. Nothing else.'
From now until Dec 30 (excluding public holidays and their eves), Citibank card members enjoy a one-for-one deal with every order of squid ink tonnarelli at Ristorante Bologna.