I’m intrigued with the psychology of a meal. What makes dining out enjoyable? What factors color our perception of the dining experience? I’m beginning to realize that it’s not just the food that plays a part in its success.
My first meal at Gattopardo, Sicilian chef Lino Sauro’s much delayed, much anticipated Sicilian seafood and pizza restaurant, two days after it opened was a mix of hits and misses. Seared amberjack, barely cooked to preserve its natural flavor and texture was excellent with its voluptuous, slightly sweet red wine béarnaise and grilled onions.
But another starter of sardines was a disappointment. The sardines were fresh but the dish was let down by the pine nut, black olive, raisin and bread crumb stuffing. It was too smooth and hard to discern the individual elements in the homogeneous paste.
Another disappointment, capellini with grey mullet bottarga and sea urchin should have been a home run. You can’t go wrong with those two ingredients, unless you don’t put enough in. They didn’t; the pasta was bland.
That night ended luckily on a strong, sweet note. Cannolo Siciliano, a crispy espresso infused wafer filled with sweet ricotta cheese, was fantastic. It was flaky and thin, so crisp it shattered effortlessly. It was better that the one I tried at Maria’s Pastry Shop, considered “Boston’s best cannoli.” It was so good that it didn’t need the orange infused chocolate sauce, an unnecessary hedge, especially since it was astutely paired with an incredibly smooth pistachio gelato. The gelato, which had a slight sticky chewiness, is among the top in Singapore.
I had high expectations for the restaurant and would have been disappointed if not for the great mood I was in throughout the meal. Maybe it was from the excitement of trying a new restaurant, the buzz of opening night rubbing off on the actors and audience alike, feeding off each other. It could have been the great company, or possibly because I watched How to Train your Dragon, a cute, funny movie beforehand. Perhaps it was because the meal started out and finished strong. I recall something about serial position effect and the theory of primacy and recency during my psych classes in college; my perception and memory of the meal were shaped by the excellent amberjack and cannolo.
I’m glad I didn’t write Gattopardo off, because it has become my latest “go to” restaurant. My nine meals since it opened in April can attest to that. I love that the restaurant has its own identity, personality; too many times the menus at other Italian restaurants just read the same. I love that chef Sauro isn’t afraid to use anchovies and sardines as well as real “fishy” fish like amberjack and swordfish. This is a real seafood lover’s restaurant.
Starters: antipasti and crudi at Gattopardo have a split personality. Whereas the rest of the menu is flavorful and rustic, the dishes here are more elegant. Raw langoustine comes in a neat square with braised fennel that takes the edge off the aniseed flavor that would overwhelm the subtle shellfish preparation.
Octopus carpaccio was sliced thin, each morsel tender. The acidity of the apple vinegar dressing balanced out the heady, salty bursts of flavor from the bottarga. Both this dish and the langoustine were decent, but pricy, at a dollar less than the most expensive pizza and pasta on the menu.
I have to confess that I’m not an expert on Italian cuisine. I’m more familiar with French food and I lack the proper context to compare if a dish is good or not. So I can’t really tell if the sweet red onion pudding is a yay or nay. I liked the cheese fondue, but the pudding lacked flavor. Its texture was smooth. It looked beautiful and felt refined.
Perhaps the emphasis on refinement was what led to the smooth texture of the failed sardine stuffing. Rustic dishes at Gattopardo are better. Stuffed squid was served with a theatrical flourish by having the shellfish and “la Uliva” extra virgin olive oil soup poured tableside. The soup had an incredible velvety mouthfeel and a range of flavor; from strong shellfish to the fruity, herbaceous, almost grassy olive oil, that was just short of breathtaking.
That organic olive oil from the town of Riesi in Sicily comes with the breadbasket as well and it’s the reason why I go though a lot of bread at Gattopardo. Notable because I usually only take a bite of a restaurant’s bread to taste, my attempt to “diet.” I asked for more bread to mop up every last drop of the shellfish soup. I almost didn’t notice the tender squid and its potato and garlic stuffing.
I tried two mains in all my visits. The herb-roasted pork belly was aromatic and meltingly succulent. But it lacked the crisp skin that makes roast pork so enjoyable. It was a huge portion too, and the layers of fat can quickly subdue the most hardcore eater into food-induced torpor. My suggestion is skip it; seafood is the star here. And the signature seafood stew is a shining showcase.
Served in a large terracotta pot, it was a mélange of mussels, squid and different fish, from lean to oily all cooked à point. There was even a whole langoustine, although its texture was disappointingly powdery. The stew was excellent and satisfying, with flavors that aren’t muddled even with the variety of ingredients. At $38, it’s one of the pricier mains but offers great value; it’s a large portion and chock full of good stuff.
I haven’t tried more mains because the pastas and pizzas here are for the most part, very good. My favorite is the semolina bucatini “holey spaghetti” with fresh sardines. The thick pasta with a hole in the center had delicious bite, augmented with the crunch of pine nuts, a nutty compliment to the flavorsome fishiness of the sardines. It was further punctuated with sweet raisins; so many textures and flavors that sat amidst a backdrop of wild fennel.
In close second, homemade stracci “rags” pasta was bold with a perfectly cooked langoustine and spicy Calabrian pork sauce. There wasn’t much pork, but it had a ton of meaty flavor propped up by a foundation of leeks and carrots. The pasta was eggy with a pleasant slight bite. This was surf and turf at its best.
Also good were the burrata ravioli with crabmeat sauce, watercress and asparagus as well as the zite with meaty swordfish, eggplant and a few small chilies to spice things up.
Gattopardo offers its pastas in double portions for $4 to $7 less than twice the price of the single helpings. The double portion of Chitarre, a squared off version of spaghetti made by pressing flat sheets though a guitar looking contraption, hence its name, was huge. It seemed bigger than two single portions (which are usually quite conservative) put together. There was a hearty amount of shellfish; shrimp, mussels and two types of clams. The seafood wasn’t overcooked but the broth was slightly salty for me, and I love salt.
Unfortunately the spaghetti with tomato sauce, fried eggplant and salted ricotta suffered from a lack of ricotta. If you want eggplant get the zite instead. (The fried eggplant in the spaghetti though was tasty, slightly crusty and decadently oily; it would make a good choice for vegetarians.) Ditto too for the paccheri pasta which needed more guanciale. Sorry, I’m predominately a meat eater and I love my pork jowl.
A detail that I appreciated with most of the pastas and seafood, is chef Sauro’s deft touch with garlic. It’s always subtly in the background, perfuming the food, but not making its presence overt. Antonio, an Italian, fellow blogger and friend, has never liked any Italian restaurant when we’ve dined together. However he gave his stamp of approval to Gattopardo.
I’ve fallen in love with pizzas at Gattopardo. Ironically the first pizza I tried, the tartufo nero, was the worst. It was during my second visit and it came highly recommended by a respected foodie friend. So I was perplexed that it was relatively bland. It read on the menu of egg yolk, crispy potatoes, artichoke cream and black truffles. I wasn’t expecting a pizza covered in truffle shavings but I couldn’t taste the truffles. The toppings, whatever it was, were chalky and dry. The pizza’s saving grace was the crispy potatoes and pizza crust.
I’ve always considered pizza crust as a necessary evil. If I could have my way, I would just eat the toppings. But on subsequent pizzas here, the crust was always something I looked forward to. It’s thin, yet chewy, moist, airy and pliable with a smoky char. Too often thin crust pizzas in Singapore are gloried crackers and thick crust pizzas have too much dough. Gattopardo gets it just right, the best of both worlds. A simple margherita with mozzarella, tomato sauce and fresh basil was devoid of distractions to savor that crust.
The Eolie, like the margherita but minus the basil and with the addition of fresh pickled anchovies and Sicilian capers was a real showstopper. There was the familiar taste of tomato and mozzarella, but more goolicious with extra cheese and dynamic bursts of flavor from the anchovies and capers. This was my favorite.
Red onions roasted to caramelized sweetness were the perfect foil for creamy burrata and tiny but flavorful mussels in the Salento. The Parma ham and rocket pizza was good but needed more buffalo mozzarella. The Vegetariana came with a slightly thicker crust and sweet, flavorful grilled zucchini, eggplant and capsicum. It was a good balance to the slightly salty cheese.
Symphony of flavors and textures, perfect haute stoner cuisine. Nikon S7c.
The Arrotolata had an airy, spongy crust folded over smoked mozzarella, suckling pig, porcini mushrooms and grape sauce. It was a classed up, pimped out hot pocket. The pork was aromatic and tender, similar to the herb roasted pork belly main. It played an equal role in the symphony of flavors and textures from the smoky, melty cheese, umami mushrooms, sweet grapes to the crisp charred exterior of the crust. This is perfect haute stoner cuisine.
If the Arrotolata is for the munchies then the Gattopardo, made from white garlic focaccia, huge globs of smoked mozzarella, Italian sausage, anchovies and onions is perfect drunk food. The generous amounts of cheese make this a very hearty pizza, the type called for at 4 a.m. after a hard night of partying. But because of all that cheese, it also needs more sausage and anchovies to provide needed salty seasoning. The pizza was bland on bites that didn’t contain those ingredients. Onions smartly added some brightness to lift the pizza from its heaviness, but would be better with the addition of something tart as a counterpoint to the cheese and sausage combination.
The other highlight of Gattopardo is its seafood counter, a treasure chest of seafood flown in almost daily from the waters of Sicily and Japan. I gawked at the pristine seafood on every visit. Curiosity finally got the better of me and I ordered the Gamberi Rossi or Sicilian red prawns. Nothing excites me more than tasting something new and nothing gives me more pleasure (ok maybe one or two things) than discovering how exquisite it is. The prawns, simply grilled (grilling is better in bringing out the flavor of crustaceans than serving it raw) had a nice crisp char on its flesh. It led to a barely cooked interior, which had a creamy almost melt-in-your mouth texture. The prawn was sweet and tasted strongly of the sea. I’ve never tasted a prawn with such intense flavor and luscious texture. It was beautiful. At $28 a prawn, it’s expensive but cheaper than an air ticket to Sicily.
I had my eye on the striking looking scorpion fish, but had to settle for a sea bream on another night (was pretty set on trying a fish.) It was expertly grilled with salt, olive oil and delicately kissed with garlic slivers. No fear of overcooked fish here. The fish had an $88 price tag. I knew it was going to be expensive; it was after all air flown. But I would rather spend my money on something rarely available at restaurants like the scorpion fish.
Some tips on choosing a fish: Get what is fresh. Ask them what came in today. Yesterday is as much latitude as I’m willing to give. If I could have my way, I’d poke, prod and pry my fingers into every fish, feeling for freshness. But we probably can’t do that here. So look at the fishes’ eyes. They should be clear. Check its skin, it should glisten.
Desserts are sweet affair… no really, as in they are very, very sweet. But I hear that’s how Sicilians like it. There was zabaione, an egg yolk sabayon, sweet and light. There was cassata, a traditional Sicilian ricotta cheesecake, which was sweet and heavy. Both were decent. The baba was ok. I preferred the huge dollop of cream to the moist sponge cake. Tiramisu was good, also one of the better versions around. However all options pale in comparison to the already mentioned cannolo Siciliano. There is no point getting anything else. It is superb. If you didn’t save enough room for dessert, which is entirely possible at this restaurant where there is so much to try, just order a scoop of their excellent pistachio gelato.
My friends always ask me which restaurants I’ve been to recently and since April the answer has always been Gattopardo. There are some flaws, the biggest being a lack of generosity with their ingredients, especially the premium ones. I understand a restaurant has to control its food cost, but they can afford to provide more. There are other minor ones, but the restaurant can always bank on a reserve of goodwill because there is conviviality to Gattopardo. Its relaxed atmosphere makes it conducive for a good time. Sure, sometimes there were kids running amok and sometimes there were moneyed tai-tais (rich housewives) running amok, the alcohol working in an inverse relationship to their level of expected dignity. But a good time, like sauce can mask a hundred mistakes and make good food taste very good indeed.
Il Gattopardo. The Leopard himself, chef Lino Sauro. After my fifth or sixth visit, he asked if I was a food blogger. With my cover blown I asked if he would pose for a photograph. He gladly obliged. He was smiling in the previous two photos. Had to change lenses and mess around with the settings. #Noobphotographer. Nikon D100.
A night of dining out, like a dish, is more than the sum of its ingredients. And what makes the magic of a night out is that confluence of food and friendship because eating out is not just about tasting what’s on the plate, but partaking in the fullness of life. And the realization that mood is food’s best seasoning.
Gattopardo Italian Grill & Pizza BarFort Canning Hotel
11 Canning Walk
Tel: 6338 5498
HOURS Open daily; lunch, noon to 3 p.m.; dinner, 6:30 p.m. to 10.30 p.m.
PRICE RANGE Starters, $18-$30; pastas, $20-$30; mains, $30-$38; pizzas $16-$30; desserts $14, $6 for scoop of gelato. Three course set lunch, $34. Prices at the seafood counter vary, but here is a sample of prices listed. Japanese kinki, $138; John Dory, $118; Sicilian red prawn, $28; scorpion fish, $180; sea bass, $98; sea bream, $88; turbot $298, $480 (for the massive one.)
RECOMMENDED DISHES Antipasti, garlic-stuffed squid in shellfish soup, barely cooked amberjack; pasta, bucatini with fresh sardines, stracci with scampi and spicy Calabrian pork sauce; pizza, eolie, arrotolata; mains, seafood stew; seafood counter, grilled Sicilian red prawns; dessert, cannolo Siciliano, pistachio gelato.