Cuisine focus: Italian

Caterer Middle East putts Italian food in the spotlight

Italian food in the Middle East has moved on from just being about pizza and pasta — there is a growing understanding of the cuisine, say chefs.
Italian food in the Middle East has moved on from just being about pizza and pasta — there is a growing understanding of the cuisine, say chefs.
People appreciate Italian cuisine for its use of fresh ingredients and pronounced flavours, our experts say.
People appreciate Italian cuisine for its use of fresh ingredients and pronounced flavours, our experts say.
Italian food is very popular in the GCC region.
Italian food is very popular in the GCC region.

Meet the experts

Giorgio Locatelli, Founder, Ronda Locatelli, Atlantis The Palm, Dubai

Andrea Mugavero, Executive chef, Roberto’s Restaurant & Lounge Dubai

Manuel Polin, Speciality chef de cuisine, Segreto, Dubai

Andrea Giannini, Head chef, Sabella’s, Kempinski Hotel Ajman, UAE

Emiliano Lazzaro, Owner and chef, Signor Pomidor, Dubai

Hisham Ibrahim, Owner and chef, House of Pizza, Dubai

Have you noticed any increase or decrease in the popularity of Italian cuisine in the region?

Giorgio Locatelli, Ronda Locatelli: There has been an increase in its standing to the point now where it’s difficult to be original. When we arrived, Italian food in the Middle East was just about pizza and pasta whereas now there is a growing understanding of the cuisine — it’s a burrata revolution!

Andrea Mugavero, executive chef, Roberto’s Restaurant & Lounge Dubai: There has been a significant increase in popularity, mostly thanks to the availability of authentic and traditional Italian ingredients, as there are more suppliers offering the original Italian ingredients required.

Manuel Polin, speciality chef de cuisine, Segreto: Italian cuisine is well known across the world and the same can be said for this region, but I have noticed a gradual decrease in the level of authenticity of Italian cuisine in the region. Personally, I feel that the role of any dish is to achieve a balance between customer dining preferences and the chef’s creativity, which is something authentic fine-dining venues are better at creating.

Andrea Giannini, head chef, Sabella’s, Kempinski Hotel Ajman: It is very popular in the region and its popularity has been increasing tremendously. More and more people are coming to the UAE, looking for different and familiar cuisines that will fit their palate.

Emiliano Lazzaro, owner and chef, Signor Pomidor: There has been an increase in interest for my country but, at the same time, quality has decreased. More and more often I see offerings from ‘can to plate’. Italian food is history, tradition, feeling, love, culture, passion; if this is not transferred to the palate of our clients, we failed.

Hisham Ibrahim, owner and chef, House of Pizza: I frequently travel to the US and Canada, so that region is one of my main yardsticks for comparison. While the palate for Italian food is expansive in the Americas, the GCC region’s love for the cuisine is primarily associated with pasta and pizza — and, understandably so, due to the strong presence of big pizza franchises in the UAE. The culture of family restaurants serving homemade Italian cuisine is what is missing here. Sumptuous Italian food made with originality, passion and farm-fresh ingredients is what this region needs.

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Do you rely on importing ingredients or are there local products on the menu?

Locatelli: We really try to work on creating a local menu with local ingredients where possible and it’s been an amazing journey doing this, visiting farms and seeing the produce that they create here. When we first opened Ronda, there was a minimal amount that we could use locally — it’s amazing how far we’ve come.

Mugavero: We rely mostly on Italian ingredients to get the traditional flavour of the cuisine. Many of our ingredients are imported from Europe. We rely on the local market for some of the fresh vegetables, like lemons and chillies.

Polin: The weather here does limit the availability of ingredients, especially vegetables. JRG Dubai places emphasis on using products that are locally cultivated, and some of these include zucchini, carrots, lettuce and micro leaves. We enjoy a good supply of high-quality seasonal ingredients in the UAE. It’s only fair to take advantage of this and also support the local economy.

Giannini: We have to use high-quality produce and, for example, the best olive oil in the world is from Italy, so we import it. The same goes for the tomatoes. If you have these basic ingredients from Italy with excellent quality, you can make really good food, combining it with organic produce from local farmers.

Lazzaro: It is sad, because we care for the environment, but we import all of our raw ingredients. We import the rocket salad from Venice, mozzarella DOP from Campania, burrata from Puglia, and so on. Each region has its speciality and we import the best from every region of Italy.

Ibrahim: While most of our products are imported from Italy, our main focus is on using fresh organic ingredients sourced from UAE farmers.

What are your biggest challenges in this market?

Locatelli: To keep it vibrant; I think this is challenging for everyone. Competition is healthy but it is challenging, especially with so many new outlets opening. We are well established though, so I’m confident for the future. Also, we want to stay true to our brand while existing in a hotel, however this is a positive challenge and it can be satisfying to work alongside a big machine but retain your identity.

Mugavero: To do better than the best and stay ahead of the game. I want people to like and respect my cuisine and culture — food is an important part of Italian culture.

Polin: Getting ingredients delivered to the restaurant on time and getting high-quality ingredients consistently. Products that aren’t locally available are expensive to import, which adds to the production cost.

Giannini: The consistency of fresh and great local produce. It’s hard to get the products that we need to make the best food. A professional chef can cook up a storm using anything but it is difficult to make good food if the product is not great.

Lazzaro: Size and capital; size allows access to economies of scale, while capital gives you the tranquility to operate with less stress.

Ibrahim: It is pivotal for a team to function like a well-oiled machine, where the owner/chef works in perfect co-ordination with the employees in order to make them well versed with processes, recipes and ingredients used.

What is the latest trend in Italian cuisine?

Locatelli: Originality and looking at Italian cuisine in a different way. It’s no longer just about pizza and pasta, but looking at dishes and ingredients from different parts of Italy.

Mugavero: Everyone has gone mad for burrata and this product is now widely used in most restaurants that are not 100% Italian.

Polin: Truffles and burrata are popular here at the moment. Diverse varieties of these products are available and are priced as per demand.

Giannini: There is a trend towards vegan and people are becoming more conscious of what they are eating. They are eating less junk and fatty food.

Ibrahim: People appreciate Italian cuisine for its use of fresh ingredients and pronounced flavours, and wth the advent of culinary globalisation, people are not afraid to experiment. Innovative pasta dishes like: the candele, ziti, guanciale, polpette and nduja, sour dough; gluten-free pizzas; aged and flavoured balsamic vinegars; charcuterie and abalone are popular, along with the tangy beverage limoncello and pomegranate-inspired desserts.

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