We’ve all no doubt had bad experiences with Hong Kong’s pseudo Italian restaurants; with overcooked pasta, sweet tomato sauce and, the worst of the lot, stodgy pizza criss-crossed with squirty mayonnaise. You could therefore be forgiven for harbouring a little scepticism when we tell you that one of the best Italians in town is owned by a born and bred Hong Konger. We didn’t believe it either until we heard his story and, more importantly, tried the food!
Chef Francesco Berardinelli and Benjamin Lung
Papi Italian Restaurant has enjoyed a strong following and rave reviews since it launched its ‘Chichetti’ small plate dining approach – essentially Italian tapas – in Elements three years ago. When they opened another branch in Wan Chai’s QRE building earlier this year and became close enough to the Localiiz office to justify a working lunch, we couldn’t resist sitting down with owner Benjamin Lung and seeing if the food really is worth the hype.
Papi – Wan Chai QRE Building Location
It was clear from the get-go that, despite his local routes, Lung is a real authority on every aspect of Italian food. Following schooling in North American, his romance with Italian cuisine began on his very first trip to Europe more than 30 years ago. It was here that his heart was won by the little-known concept of ‘Chichetti’ dining, the Mediterranean tradition of sharing multiple dishes among families.
“I found the food culture in Italy to be very similar to the Chinese style,” explained Lung, who readily admits to always being chubby. “Fresh local ingredients, very geographically based, and not over working it. Cooking is also something the whole family does together. Whenever there’s something festive, it’s always centred around food.”
Papi’s signature Chichetti dishes
Over the yearly trips that followed, Lung learnt all he could about Italian cooking, and made connections with some of the country’s best chefs.
“Italians are very protective of their cuisine. If you tell them your mum makes the best pasta in the world, you’re done for. But when they realise you love food and know about food, they go that extra mile to impress and teach you,” Lung told us.
Juicy Pork Meatballs
Lung has since sold his first Italian restaurant Va Bene – one of the first free-standing authentic Italians in Hong Kong – and the hugely successful Gaia Group he founded. He however launched himself straight back into the Italian dining scene after a short-lived, “boring” retirement.
Both Papi restaurants are headed by celebrated Tuscan Chef Francesco Berardinelli, and while the cooking method is always 100% Italian, the ingredients are sourced from wherever can supply optimum quality and availability; beef from the US, fish from Japan, and of course tomatoes, cheese and oil directly from Italy.
Eggplant and Spinach Salad
There’s no corner cutting or compromises, with Lung even shelling out four times the local price for Italian eggs for his eggplant, spinach, pine nuts and slow-cooked egg salad. This focus on what matters most is strikingly evident in both the flavours served up in this no-frills, family-style eatery, and the passion of its founder.
Papi Dessert Platter – Gelato, Panna Cotta, and Tiramisu
Everything we tried at Papi was truly delicious, authentic and affordable, served up much like dim sum on a ‘when it’s ready’ basis. Particular props must however be given to the fennel-infused juicy pork meatballs, the succulent chargrilled whole calamari with lemon and chilli, and the to-die-for panna cotta, which was lapped up with gusto despite our stomachs being fit to burst!