One of Shanghai dining’s biggest challenges is finding foreign food that matches what you remember from home. Despite the amount of pizza and pasta you can find here, this applies to Italian food too. Which is why we wanted to talk to a local chef who’s bringing the cuisine of Italy, with a palatable homegrown flair, to Shanghai’s more discerning diners.
Chef Leo is the Shanghainese mastermind that presides over the kitchen at Solo, a restaurant that produces some excellent and innovative Italian cuisine. His is a menu beholden to traditional Italian food but with nuanced Asian flourishes, cosmopolitan touches that make it feel right at home yet distinguished in Shanghai’s overcrowded Italian restaurant scene.
You’d be forgiven for having not heard of Solo yet. Leo consciously keeps a low profile when it comes to promoting his restaurant; you won’t have seen any flashy ads for the place. And yet, through word of mouth, the place still regularly finds itself packed with Shanghai’s more gastronomically in-the-know, people that know great food when they taste it. It helps the restaurant keep an intimate atmosphere, even as it becomes more popular.
It’s a place that we love for its modern style, its vibe and the fact that it serves food that is very easy to fall in love with. The restaurant also disproves the misconception, unfortunately common in Shanghai, that you have to seek out foreign chefs to get high-quality Western food.
Leo has, it seems, always had a passion for Italy’s cuisine and its culture. It’s easy to feel when speaking with him, and it stems from his belief that the passion and authenticity of the Italian people is “reflected in their food. China, France and Italy are all great culinary nations, but the people are different”. He’s even spent almost a decade of his life in the country, getting intimately acquainted with Italian food, culture and people.
All of this comes through in his cooking. “Chinese and French cooking is all about technique”, Leo says; “what sets Italian food apart is that it is more reliant on good ingredients than precise technique, and that even the simplest Italian dishes can taste fantastic”.
He admits that with Italian cuisine’s emphasis on fresh, high quality ingredients comes the problem of translating authentic flavors. How to make the most of ingredients that have spent so much time and distance away from their homeland? It’s a problem that encourages creative thinking, and also combines conveniently with another of Leo’s challenges; how to make Italian cooking something that local diners in Shanghai will fall in love with too?
Differences can be tiny, but for people like Leo that know where to look, they are there. “Even the pasta tastes different”, he says. “The water here is different to water in Italy, which means that the pasta cooked in it has a slightly different flavour”.
That’s not to say the food at Solo is anything approaching fusion. This food is fundamentally, thoroughly Italian, but with some welcome flashes of local style.
As interesting as it is to hear a chef like Leo discuss his craft, we of course couldn’t help but ask him a little about wine.
When it comes to our favorite nectar, Chef Leo unsurprisingly prefers bottles from the country whose food he so loves. He says that this is, first and foremost, thanks to his “personal bond” with the country, as well as the fact that the Italian wine world produces so many styles and varieties.
He also has a pretty colorful way of hinting at the differences between the wine of Italy and the stuff produced by its great wine making rival across the Alps, France. “It’s like the difference between French and Italian women”, he claims. “They dress different, they act different. It isn’t that one is worse; it’s just that some prefer Italian.”
It also helps that Leo believes Italian wine is more centered on food pairing than its French counterparts. His own preference is a marriage of Barbaresco from the Piedmont region of Southern Italy with the strong flavors of Northern cooking. Leo likes light, acidic wines that are simple and not over sophisticated; “suitable for daily drinking, not just special occasions”.
Clearly then, beyond just food, Leo is devoted to Italian culture. And, while this comes through unequivocally in his cooking, it hasn’t let it stop him thinking outside the box and creating something of his own, something that Italians and Chinese alike can love.
It isn’t hard to see why. Before we left Leo to begin a busy evening in the Solo kitchen, we asked him one last question. What tips would you have for any aspiring chefs to improve their craft at home?
“Don’t let cooking be a burden. Cooking should be fun. Cook because you love it.”
It’s clear that Leo follows his own advice, and that it’s served him well.