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If music be the food of love

Published: Thursday, June 30, 2016    

Irwin B Fletcher relishes an evening in Italy with ‘Serata Italiana’, the Tuesday night themed dining offering from Zest Restaurant at Al Ain Rotana...

There is a reason why ‘amore’ happens ‘when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie’. The allure and unavoidable entrapment of an Italian summer’s evening’s stroll through tiny cobblestone streets and piazzas - before and after an indulgent meal - has been romanticised for centuries.

And why shouldn’t it be? Walking along, one hears the boisterous conversations and ‘clinking’ of glasses spilling out into the night, accompanied by the enticing waft of Italian fayre that has been in preparation for hours, with the strains of accordian music playing romantic ballads. The only thing to decide is where you should duck in to for the evening’s meal.

Unfortunately, I can’t give you the cobblestone streets, nor the ubiquitous red and white chequered tablecloths complete with a halfmelted candle perched on top of an uncorked bottle! But for an authentic ‘Serata Italiana’ (Italian evening), you need look no further than Zest in Al Ain Rotana each Tuesday.

Hailing from Bevagna, a small town between Rome and Florence in the province of Umbria, Italian Executive Chef Mirco Nocchetti brings his mother’s recipes to our Garden City and they feature on the menu each Italian night.

“The ingredients are key,” Chef emphasised as he guided me around the options for the evening. “If you don’t start with the freshest, most natural ingredients, you’ll never get what you want in the flavour.”

The pizza crusts and pastas in the live cooking section are made in-house as are the meatballs:

“And they are just as you would eat if you came for dinner at my house in Italy. They’re my mother’s recipes,” he told me proudly.

Chef needed to say no more, in my mind’s eye, I had found a small osteria – a simple Italian restaurant - where the accent was on delicious, home made food prepared in traditional style. And so my Serata Italiana began.

To start, I didn’t sway from tradition and chose Buffalo Mozzarella from the salad selection, along with a stemmed glass filled with Baby Shrimps and finally a Tomato and Basil Shooter.

The Buffalo Mozzarella, which comes from the Campania region of Southern Italy, was just as refreshing and creamy as I remembered it from my days living in that country. I added a drizzle of Pesto Sauce and was transported back to Salerno again!

The light and refreshing Baby Shrimps, served on a bed of crisp shredded lettuce, also reminded me of that port city. The Tomato and Basil Shooter was a delightful mélange of spicy tomato juice softened by the hint of basil. Very tasty.

We were off to a good start, but I was anxious to explore Zest’s live cooking stations and so, appetisers over, headed straight there.

The artisan Pasta and Gnocchi intrigued me, but, after a closer look, I also found Tortellini with Spinach and Ravioli with Mushrooms. Decision time! But I decided to go with my original choices; pasta on one plate, gnocchi on the other.

That evening, Chef had prepared four different sauces; Bolognese, Tomato, Cream and Pesto. I chose Bolognese for the Gnocchi, and a Cream Sauce for the Pasta, thus balancing ‘heavy’ with ‘light’ for each dish.

Slightly spicy with a dash of pepper, the Gnocchi with Bolognese sauce was excellent. The gnocchi was creamy in texture and cooked perfectly - thus not ‘sticky’ as can often happen.

From the selection of vegetables available to ‘tailor-make’ my own dish, I chose chopped onion, diced zucchini, black olives and mushrooms to my Pasta and Cream Sauce. They added colour to the monochromatic entrée – and certainly enhanced the overall flavour.

My dining friends and I paused for a few moments after the pasta course. In typical Italian style, it’s best to relax and digest between courses – and, that evening, it gave us the opportunity to anticipate our next venture to the buffet counters!

So, on my next trip there, I decided to try some of the few specialities Chef had introduced me to earlier.

Careful not to overcrowd my plate, I chose Sautéed Green Beans, Chicken Piccata, Chef’s recommendation of his mother’s Meatballs, a small portion of Lasagna and some Chicken Scallopini.

The Sautéed Green Beans prepared with sun-dried tomatoes, gave a delightful nod to days gone by, for, in the past during the summer months, Italians would dry their own tomatoes on the ceramic tiles of their roofs. This locked in their delightful flavour!

The Chicken Piccata was typically Italian. The thinly sliced chicken was sautéed and served with a sauce hinting of lemon and butteralong with other herbs and spices that I could not individually identify. Similarly, the Chicken Scallopini was breaded and pan-fried, and just as aromatic and delicious as the Piccata.

I was really looking forward to the Meatballs. Although not traditionally Italian, they appear periodically in Italian cuisine, perhaps through an American influence from decades ago? Chef wouldn’t say what his secret ingredient was, but it did not matter. With a spoonful of deliciously ‘herby’ tomato sauce over the meatballs, I sliced yet another one, savoured the aroma – and then delighted in the flavour.

And then I tucked into the Lasagna. Would it be as creamy and smooth as I remembered from my time in Italy? After the first bite, I knew it was very authentically, deliciously, traditional! Thick, rich, and creamy from first bite, it brought back vivid memories of romantic nights listening to accordian music while enjoying typical Italian food in piazzas years ago.

My dining companions, meanwhile, had opted for the ‘pizzaria’ instead of the ‘osteria’ as I had, but were kind enough to share a slice. According to Chef, the pizza dough is made by hand in traditional Italian way with the time-honoured ingredients that most pizzerias still use today.

Only after letting the dough rest for a full 48 hours does Chef bring it from the kitchen and add an array of toppings.

My table stayed conventional with diced tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella with shaved Parmesan and olive oil rounding out Italy’s ‘best of’.

The pizza was just as thin and light as I remembered. Chef is right. It is truly about the ingredients – thus this pizza was not heavy on the stomach.

After a few moments we visited the dessert counter. Tiramisu, Sicilian Cheese Cake with its light cookie-crumble crust, and a dollop of casata with raspberry drizzle were my three choices. Indulgent perhaps but they were irresistible!

Later, as we made our way home, I was a little nostalgic – the moon above in the Al Ain sky transported me back again to Italy… and was that an accordian playing Volare I could hear in the background? I’m sure it was – but there again, that’s what a Serata Italiana night at Zest does for you – where you’ll find the ‘food of love’…!

 
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