Renowned Italian restauranteur speaks about authentic cuisine, and his talented Thai chef Sayan Sartpradit
Passion is a word often associated with people in the culinary world, sometimes to the point of cliché. But as cliché as it may be, in the case of restaurateur Antonio Armenio nothing else would be fitting. Whether he talks about food, his muse, or his newest establishment, La Piazza on Sukhumvit Soi 24, his passion is all you can see. And sharing his passion is La Piazza’s head chef Sayan Sartpradit, a Thai native who speaks only a modest amount of English so Antonio speaks on his behalf.
It’s only a Wednesday night at this three month-old eatery, but the crowd is fast swelling its two levels. The latte and contrasting white colour scheme, brick wall, and terracotta flooring mimics the atmosphere of an Italian square, and on Fridays and Saturdays the guests at the Top Room, the uppermost floor, are treated to live music, including Latin, Bossa Nova, and jazz.
Vodka Martini in hand—his preferred aperitif for tonight—Antonio makes one thing clear from the very beginning, he does not want diners to “compare” his two restaurants. The hugely successful Antonio’s Italian Restaurant, which has been around since 2004, is focused on fine dining, whereas his newest baby is a casual neighbourhood eatery.
“I want La Piazza to be the little sister to Antonio’s,” he says. “But I don’t want it to follow in its shadow. I want this place to have its own personality and its own following.” Our first dish, the Bruschetta Bar—a unique DIY platter comprising of toasted bruschetta, smoked salmon, two variations of salami, sautéed mushrooms, salsa, pesto, and salted anchovies—is the first example of the distinction.
The inspiration for La Piazza’s homey offerings comes from Antonio’s childhood memories of his mother cooking traditional meals for their family of seven. By the time the Tortellini tomato soup is set in front us, Antonio is deeply nostalgic. “Her cooking is simple, and true to her southern Italian roots,” he explains. “What I serve my guests here is a taste of my upbringing. I am not pushing for modern interpretations of Italian cuisine. I don’t do anything that looks like a cappuccino, but is a Carpaccio.”
Inventions like the Godfather (veal, Italian sausage, and pork ribs slow cooked in a rich sauce served with penne), Ravioli Alla Napoletana (ravioli with ricotta and spinach in pomodoro), and the Lobster Linguine (Canadian lobster flavoured with garlic, white wine, and chilli) are just a few samples of Antonio’s creativity in the kitchen. Yet surprisingly, he does not consider himself a chef.
“I have two experienced Thai chefs that run the kitchen at La Piazza,” he points out, and the open kitchen on the ground floor confirms just that. “Some people need the fancy Italian chef to seem more convincing, and that is because they themselves don’t know anything about cooking or know very little. Whereas here I am in the kitchen with them every day; guiding them, telling them what needs to be better, what needs to change, etc. My guests are not bothered whether it’s a Thai chef or some guy I flew in—what they care about is the quality and the taste. And this is something I give them consistently.”
Numerous restaurants in Bangkok are going back to basics with food. So what is La Piazza doing different, I inquire. “We are proven,” he remarks. “It makes a big difference when people know who is behind it. Anyone with money can open up a restaurant. They do this all the time in the city. But these restaurants close as fast as they open, because there is lack of thought, lack of knowledge in how to do it, and lack of understanding in what the customer needs,” he adds, with conviction.
Somewhere between the Tarfuto pizza—a melt-in-your-mouth combination of truffle cheese, porcini mushroom, and truffle oil—and the heavenly homemade Ferrero Rocher ice cream, I ask Antonio how he measures his success. “It’s all about passion,” he says without skipping a beat. “It’s what I built my life upon. People feel what you do, as well as taste what you give them. Whatever we do, we give it the love it deserves, and I pray that you feel it.”