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Sweet life missing in spacious Italian diner

TRAVEL, to some people, can be absolutely magical. The sense of adventure, the brand new sights and sounds, the curious cultures encountered along the way - these are all irresistible reasons to submit to that sense of wanderlust and explore the nooks and crannies of this vast planet.

This week I returned from the Mediterranean island of Sicily, where the people are much poorer than their northern Italian comrades, a situation reflected in the gastronomy. Typical meals are rustic, and barely feature any meat; the local produce is used expertly and recipes often involve deep frying to mask unpleasant odors and flavors. Surprisingly, the ubiquitous Parmesan cheese was usually absent in favor of cheaper bread crumbs to sprinkle over pasta.

Despite the apparent lack of richness from the bog standard fare, much of the food was delightful, if a little on the similar side. In case you are unaware, Sicily is nothing close to a metropolis such as ours, and the proximity to arable land and pristine waters meant fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables. The oranges, for example, were unbelievably sweet, while the tuna was simply outstanding and never more than a stone's throw away.

Here in Shanghai we often lament the quality of local restaurants, whether they serve Chinese fare or the Western cuisine many are familiar with. While it is true the industry has yet to hit peak maturity, it is all too easy to forget that this is the price to be paid for urban living. Farms are much further away and the connection between the plot and the market is much longer, meaning quality gets diluted along the way.

Simply put, if it's la dolce vita you want, then a life spent in the country is what you need. If it is the hustle and bustle of downtown living you choose, then certain sacrifices have to be made along the way.

Those looking for the sweet life in Fumin Road's Dolce Vita are likely to be disappointed. Before anyone hurls accusations, it must be pointed out I harbored no illusions that it was going to satisfy me in the same way as the fare in Sicily. The choice of venue was absolutely because I wanted to show off my trip and musings.

Dolce Vita, next to the incredibly popular Cantina Agave, is a lot larger than it looks from the outside, with the lower level an absolute waste of space and the upstairs main dining room far too large than it needs to be. The restaurant was fairly busy on a weeknight but there was no buzz as tables were spread too far apart.

The menu is that cookie-cutter Italian you get in Liverpool or Rotterdam but probably not Rome. At least it was not sprawling; just a page each for appetizers, pastas, seafood, meat and pizza.

The buffalo mozzarella (88 yuan/US$12.90) was the first sign the evening was to be disappointing. Buffalo cheese should be rich and nutritious; this may have been imported but that doesn't mean it was good, and the people of Italy bear collective responsibility for the rubbery texture and blandness of the mozzarella.

The sea bass ravioli (98 yuan) was a marked improvement, although the fish sauce was a tad too watery. This was an unpretentious dish highlighted by the solid pasta and good chunks of fish. In comparison, the black ink risotto (98 yuan) was again not as rich as one expects from this dish, although the rice was cooked right. Another revelation in Italy was that over there one takes al dente for granted; anywhere else and the situation is so dire we are relieved when they get into the same ball park.

The grilled lamb (168 yuan) was nothing to right home about at all. Slightly tough, there was simply no effort to dress it up with herbs and spices. Other than the cloying red wine sauce, there was barely any nuance other than slightly old lamb.

If Dolce Vita was trying to show off its ingredients, it chose the wrong city. If it was relying on the skill of the kitchen, then it needs a rethink. It may say it is catering for the local crowd, but at these prices one finds local diners more sophisticated than you think. The only plus was the smart wine list, where I was able to order a reasonable bottle from (where else?) Sicily.

Address: 291 Fumin RdTel: 6170-1318

Steamed spareribs in black bean sauce

When you eat dim sum, there are certain dishes that you can always order - cha shao bao (steamed buns with grilled pork), feng zhua (steamed chicken feet), xia jiao (steamed shrimp dumplings) and dou chi pai gu (steamed spareribs with black bean sauce.) If you are lucky enough to live near a large supermarket that has a meat section, the pork rib tips are easy to find. You can also ask your butcher to cut normal ribs crosswise to get small 1-1/2 riblets.

Traditionally, dou chi (whole fermented black beans) is used in this dish. It is available in the condiment section of local supermarkets. This dish only takes about five minutes to prepare and 20-30 minutes to steam. Serves four as part of a multi-course meal.


700 grams pork sparerib (rib tips)

2 tablespoons black bean sauce

1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon grated ginger (on microplane grater)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon cooking oil

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon sugar


Cut the spareribs crosswise into two sections. Combine the rest of the ingredients. Transfer spareribs and sauce into a shallow, heat-proof pan that will fit inside your wok (a pie plate or 23 centimeter cake pan works great.) Let ribs marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Set steaming rack inside a wok and fill with water almost up to height of rack. Turn heat to high and when water is boiling, turn heat to medium-high. Set pan with spareribs on top of a steaming rack in wok. Steam on med-high heat for 18-20 minutes until ribs are no longer pink. Make sure when steaming that you don't run out of water in the wok. Replenish with more water, if needed.


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