The Americans take its name, transmuted into sausage and slightly modified, as a byword for nonsense. Stendhal considers Rome the city of perfect love, while ‘when we are in Bologna, we are perfectly indifferent’. And its great contribution to Italian and world cuisine appears in many an ‘Italian place’, bastardised beyond recognition – chunky, hapless tomato paste with some mincemeat thrown in, slipping off spaghetti that it was never meant to be paired with.
Bologna, poor Bologna. But in Singapore at least, the cuisine of the region has found an adept representative; its name is Bottura, and it resides in the renovated part of Suntec City. When I first walked past the hoardings around April, the name made me do a double take. Wait, Bottura? That Bottura? The Osteria Francescana guy?
Well, no, as it turns out. But if Singapore’s Bottura – named after Luca, its owner, whose family has a long history in the Italian restaurant scene – is not armed with three Michelin stars (and aren’t those things the Damocles’ Swords of the dining world), it’s got pretty much everything else. Perched on a balcony overlooking an as-yet uncrowded courtyard, its dining area is open and airy, leaning towards simplicity. Shelves are packed not with kitsch or vintage trappings, but edibles from Emilia-Romagna for sale – small flasks of olive oil, aceto balsamico (a protected product from the region), flavoured sugars. If there’s a 1950s Vespa somewhere, I didn’t see it, which is a good thing in my books.
Instead the effort is directed, rightly, towards the kitchen. Pasta is made on the premises, and even some of their cheese; what isn’t made here – pecorino cheese, translucent slices of Parma ham – is brought over from Italy. Once everything’s in the kitchen, it’s then put together according to family recipes, passed down from generation to generation, as their Facebook page proudly proclaims every time a dish is introduced.
It’s easy to be cynical about this sort of claim sometimes, when so many other Italian joints make it. Yeah, sure, Julius Caesar’s nonna made this for him before he went off coming and seeing and conquering, and you’ve been doing it this way ever since. But after two visits to Bottura, I’m won over.
Bolognaise sauce, or ragù, is a smooth, fine stew in Bottura’s rendition, where the tomatoes – which are added as concentrate, in small amounts – share the stage with wine and plenty of aromatics instead of dominating everything. Hints of onion and celery and wine permeate the sauce, complementing the al dente spring and flavour of the tagliatelle, and the minced beef even has a little gristle in it, for a subtle crunch.
The degustation menu, with six pasta dishes and a splash of wine (brightly acidic, quite astringent), is a parade of delights. Gnocchi is chewy and fluffy, the scent of potato complemented by a four cheese sauce; parsley-hued oil keeps it from becoming all too much. Spaghetti carbonara is appropriately gooey and rich, the bacon packing a savoury punch. And the nidi di rondine, literally swallow’s nest – a roll of pasta huddled with ham, ricotta and spinach, again covered with a sauce suffused with pecorino – is a lesson in mixing flavours; even through the sauce, I could taste everything I saw – leafy, moist spinach, pale ricotta, fresh red, flaky ham.
Balance, really, is the key here. Italian cooking, more than most others, is born from family and home cooking; what’s really passed down through generations, and present here, is the instinct for making every ingredient count, even when there aren’t many ingredients. So it is with the red section of the degustation – penne with a bright tomato sauce, pips and minced shallots popping in every bite. Our old friend ragù, this time with squares of polenta (Italian cornmeal cakes) that crumble in the mouth. Then another penne, but this time with briny, supple tuna flakes, a hint of anchovies sulking in the background. The accompaniment of capers and tomatoes barely keeps the whole dish from plunging irretrievably into the deep.
Bottura is a new place, and it shows up in the slightly uneven service. The white dishes are introduced upon serving, but their red cousins are just plopped onto the table; even when asked, the waiter misidentifies polenta as lasagna. Still, these are minor creases, and on the whole Bottura is a valuable addition to the Italian dining scene here. I’m already planning another visit, to take in the arancini, maybe the cold cuts platter.
As for the Facebook enthusiasm, I see the other side now. When people love something, they can’t help going on and on about it, and you can tell the guys behind Bottura love what they do. Consider me inspired.
02-472-474, Suntec City Mall (between Towers 1 and 2)