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July 30, 2009

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New Italian has potential

THE Latina brand best known for its four outlets around the city selling all things meat on a stick has recently branched out into Italian at its newest digs in Pudong New Area.

Located in a new 1,000-square-meter building on Lujiazui Road called La Villa, Latina has put its well-known buffet and Brazilian barbecue concept on the second floor, while its newest venture into the world of a la carte, Alla Torre, is on the first floor.

Latina has built its success on the all-you-can eat lure for carnivores looking to get a serious protein hit from their various barbecued offerings.

At Alla Torre there are no meat skewers or table carvings, with Latina looking to attract a more up-market clientele who are more concerned with what's on the plate than how much.

While acknowledging that "meat is an international language," Latina general manager and part owner Angela Chen says the healthy Mediterranean food of Italy is also a good bet with local diners.

"Chinese people are opening up to a lot more Western food and they know about Italian food being healthy and using olive oil, plus they already love pizza and pasta," she says.

Chen has a canny eye for spotting what will work in the local market. She decided to join forces with Latina's original owner Jun Taichi four years ago after eating at his original Brazilian diner.

Latina was just one outlet then but has since grown to its current five under the steerage of Chen who used to work in the IT and software industry.

Shanghai has a growing love affair with Italian cuisine and it seems like a new Italian restaurant opens its doors every week.

Alla Torre fired up the kitchens for its first day of business last Saturday and is currently in that bizarre Shanghai restaurant birthing phase, the so-called "soft opening."

This allows a restaurant a fair amount of leeway to not get it right while still usually charging customers full price.

Thankfully, Alla Torre got most things right but certain dishes still lacked a certain polish despite having two foreign chefs hovering in the kitchen.

The menu isn't going to challenge or surprise but it covers the basic dishes one would expect.

Pastas range from 68 yuan (US$9.95) to 88 yuan and pizzas range from 58 yuan for a basic Margherita pizza to 88 yuan for the Stagioni.

Despite the hot weather the chef has also decided to go for an ossobuco (168 yuan) and the menu also has a selection of Australian steaks from 168 yuan to 188 yuan for a 200-gram piece.

While its selection is smaller than normal due to Alla Torre being in soft opening mode a glimpse at the full list showed only a few more offerings in most of its different categories.

But in Italian food less is often more and a smaller menu done well is a much more attractive proposition than a long list with a scattering of hits and misses.

Like its menu, Alla Torre covers off the basics with its decor. There's the wine rack, pizza oven and open kitchen plus, in keeping with the theme, a mosaic of the Mona Lisa.

The 60 to 70-seat restaurant has a separate bar area that also offers snacks and light meals.

The 100 strong wine list has a solid range of Italian wines from various regions and prices start from 40 yuan a glass and around the 200 yuan to 300 yuan mark for a bottle.

On our visit we went for the beef carparccio for starters. While the promised black truffle and lemon dressing was seemingly absent, it was a solid dish topped with mushrooms and rocket leaves with fresh cherry tomatoes.

Mains however still needed to have some kinks iron out.

Lasagna is a barometer for Italian restaurants in Shanghai with a poor performance usually boding badly for other offerings. While the chef should be given credit for using handmade pasta, the slices were too thick and lacked filling, leaving the diner to chew through the pasta and wonder what happened to the meat. The lack of sauce and filling also meant the edges were dried out and tough after baking.

Our other selection, the Stagioni pizza, got it almost right but came out with water along sections of the top of the pizza due most probably to the chef not pat drying the bell peppers and the artichokes before putting them on the pizza.

However the base was done well and at 30 centimeters in diameter the pizzas are a hearty filler. The baked pear and chocolate tortino with vanilla gelato for dessert was a solid finisher.

Alla Torre's faults were more of the teething variety than fatal flaws.

It provides an experience one would expect from veteran restaurateurs who have positioned it well for the hordes of World Expo 2010 visitors.

Whether it does enough in the long term to stand out from a growing pack of Italian eateries in the city, however, remains to be seen.


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