The Viva Italia promotion at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Hotel was billed as “north versus south.” That was meant to show how, even with the same basic dishes (pasta, risotto, pizza), there will be differences in preferred ingredients and even methods of cooking.
There was a boxing ring set up at the pool area, and the two contenders were already sweating, thanks to the humidity, even before the competition got underway. The two—the hotel’s executive chef Denis Vecchiato and Toni Rossetti, chef and owner of Noti Restaurant in Singapore—were raring to get on with their friendly sparring.
Vecchiato is from the northern Veneto region, and you can surmise correctly that the region includes Venice, its city capital. In the boot-shaped country of Italy, Veneto is in that area under the leg’s knee. Vecchiato listed polenta, truffle and lasagna as among the iconic ingredients of Italian cuisine from the north.
Rossetti is from Puglia, the southern region that forms the heel of the Italian boot. The climate is Mediterranean, and so ingredients from there are tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, olives, basil.
Healthier olive oil
When the bell sounded, it was time to do pasta. The friendly rivalry included pointing out certain differences. Rossetti showed the huge bowl of butter on the northern side, compared to the constant and supposedly healthier olive oil on his southern side. Vecchiato indeed was going to use olive oil as well as butter for his penne with mixed seafood, its rich sauce made with lobster bisque.
The southern side produced pasta shaped like pigs’ ears called orecchiette, with a pork sausage called salsiccia also known as Italian sausage. At the Italian buffet, the orecchiette was there, still al dente spiced with the sausage.
Amidst laughter, the two chefs went on to the risotto, the classic rice dish that both north and south cook. This dish doesn’t cook in an instant, but the chefs produced the dish right away because the rice must have been cooked beforehand.
Rossetti’s recipe uses precooked rice using chicken stock on low fire. This risotto has mushrooms, butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano, the cheese a product of the north.
Vecchiato’s recipe, on the other hand, had the rice grains sautéed with garlic, with the white wine and the fish stock added a little at a time until cooked. For the event, that must have been done earlier with asparagus and scallops, while the parmesan cheese and butter were added on site.
And so we came to the pizza, and here the dough was mixed by hand on both sides. But Rossetti took a rolling pin from Vecchiato’s corner to show that the north had to rely on such a tool to shape the rounded pizza. Rossetti used only his hands to punch and shape the dough to an irregular rectangle. The results: Vecchiato’s rounded pizza with curls of prosciutto and Rossetti’s pizza al metro or pizza by the meter, though it wasn’t that long.
Rossetti cited as an example osso buco, the original of which is braised veal shank from the northern region of Milan. And I suppose Vecchiato must learn the southern Neapolitan way of doing pizza such as the iconic Margherita with its tri-colored topping (like the Italian flag) of white cheese, red tomatoes and green basil.
Italy, given its history of uniting into one country only in the 19th century, still keeps the cuisine of its many regions distinct, whether north or south. We probably mostly know the generic ones.
The two chefs have worked in many parts of the world. Chef Vecchiato was executive chef in Qatar, Malaysia and China before coming to Sofitel. Chef Rossetti did the rounds of international hotels in Europe (Paris, Monte Carlo, London, Scotland, Milan) then at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore until he opened Noti there.
Both held cooking classes this week, but their food will be available until Saturday. (Sofitel: Tel 5615555.)
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