How many Italians does it take to make a batch of fresh pasta? In the case of Appia, Bangkok’s unpretentiously scrumptious representative of Roman cooking, the answer is three: Head Chef Paolo Vitaletti; his older brother, pizza-maker Stefano; and the one who first taught them the tricks of the trade: their 80-year-old mamma Pia, in Thailand to mark the birth of Paolo’s second child.
The kitchen here is small—crammed behind the bar-plus-tavola calda of a classic trattoria, with a delectable porchetta roast turning on a spit at the back—so our meeting takes place on two tables put together to hold the required wooden boards, traditional rollers, basket of eggs, and packages of semolina flour. The first surprise is that the latter doesn’t necessarily have to come from Italy.
“Even back there, it’s a blend of wheat from many countries already,” Paolo explains. “So why order flour that sits fifty days on a ship?”
There’s no surprise in seeing the proud grandma crack eggs into a volcano-like crater of flour she’s formed. “Easier for mixing,” says Paolo. As for the exact amount of eggs and flour, Mamma Pia does it by feel, just like she did every Sunday while the boys were growing up on the outskirts of Roma. “Our house was a restaurant,” the chef recounts.
Watching the home cook in charge go through her labours, Paolo says that Appia, too, always does it by hand for its paccheri carbonara and cavatelli with lamb ragu, because “I love the different bites, the roughness, the imperfection.”
But does an 80-year-old really have to work this hard? Fifteen minutes of forceful kneading are needed to create a loaf-like dough that’s left to sit before it’s slowly rolled into paper-thin rounds. The boys join in to give Mamma a hand with this, though, as Paolo points out, “Just look! Her circles are perfect.”
The chef does the honours of hanging the rounds on the rollers for quick drying. After a break, Mamma Pia takes a small knife to cut strips of dough into tiny slices which, with one deft twist of the hand not unlike those of Chinese noodle maestros, turn into completed coils of perfect fettuccine.
“Resolutely old-fashioned” is how Chef Paolo describes the technique and his cooking in general. He even uses that approach when training and managing his Thai kitchen help. “My Mamma always told me: ‘The fish starts to smell from the head.’ So I treat them like family members at all times, and they have responded with equal loyalty.”
After years working for Harry’s Bar in London and the Four Seasons chain in the Middle East and Beijing, the homesick chef wanted to recreate the Italy he knew and loved. When Appia started, he and co-partner Jarett Wrisley weren’t sure Thais would appreciate a menu heavy on tripe, rabbit, polenta, and artichokes, but the duo thought “What’s to lose?”
“Why complicate our lives doing fancy recipes to satisfy others?” asks Paolo. “My goal is to run a place that people want to come eat at three or four times a week.”
Once he brings out the just-made fettuccine—accompanied by the pride and joy of his menu, wonderfully bitter puntarelle topped with fresh anchovies, a chicken liver purée with toast that speaks volumes of Rome’s Jewish influence—boiled to perfect chewiness, then swirled in a hearty tomato sauce and topped with generous slices of fresh black truffle, this writer is ready to sign up for regular room and board. And, like Paolo, I’ve got Mamma to thank.
20/4 Sukhumvit 31 | 0 2261-2056 | appia-bangkok.com | Tue-Sun 6.30pm-11pm, Sun 11.30am-2.30pm