When the spaghetti carbonara plate was served, chef Federico Pinzi was shocked by the way the Vietnamese restaurant adapted Italian dishes.
Federico Pinzi (Feder), owner of an Italian restaurant in District 2, Ho Chi Minh City, expected a plate of Italian-flavored spaghetti with a traditional cream sauce made from eggs, cheese and pancetta (bacon). However, what he received was a “odd version” with a slightly pasty, flavorless cream sauce and garnished with peas. Feder politely called the chef to discuss traditional Italian food.
Not only spaghetti carbonara, pizza is also varied. For example, pizza Margherita is the most basic of Italian pizzas, consisting of tomatoes, fresh basil and just the right amount of cheese. In Vietnam, many places make this dish with reduced acidity, increased sweetness and lots of cheese. Feder understands that Vietnamese people like spinning cheese, which creates a beautiful effect when eaten.
Feder also found it “strange” when spaghetti was served with cucumbers. The topping of a traditional Italian pizza usually includes prosciutto (Italian-style jambon), mushrooms and olives. Pineapple pizza is also quite popular in Vietnam and many parts of the world. Feder said he has not eaten pineapple pizza and does not intend to try it because “Italian blood” does not allow it. In Italy, many people cannot accept the combination of pizza and pineapple.
“I think the taste of pineapple pizza probably isn’t bad. However, it’s similar to how Vietnamese people eat vermicelli with soy sauce instead of shrimp paste. Vietnamese people probably won’t mind, but they will say you eat it the wrong way,” he said. .
According to Feder, the way to prepare traditional Italian pizza and spaghetti is different in each region, but the bread and pasta are all made from flour and water (spaghetti has eggs added). In addition to the well-kneaded dough, the chefs have to brew it for the right time to create the best flavor. The Italians also focus on using the freshest ingredients such as “extra virgin” olive oil, juicy tomatoes, burrata cheese or fresh basil leaves.
However, in Vietnam, many restaurants have modified versions to suit Vietnamese tastes. Feder is still willing to eat Italian variations abroad, but it is unlikely that other Italians are too. This also depends on the “openness” in each person’s mind. Some regions like Naples are quite “conservative”. They are proud of the pizza of the region because it is the birthplace of pizza. It’s really difficult for them to accept a variation, even though it’s delicious.
“Personally, I don’t think there’s a variation that beats the traditional flavor,” he said.
However, Feder is also quite fond of a version of “Vietnamese pizza” which is grilled rice paper. The first time eating this dish at a roadside restaurant, the Italian chef was “stunned” because there are more than 15 topping options from chicken, beef to eggs. He commented that the way to make grilled rice paper is quite similar to pizza in terms of presentation, including the base, topping and baking.
Having been in the restaurant business for many years, Feder understands that everyone has their own taste and deserves respect. Changing the traditional way of doing things to fit the local culture is not bad. However, the chef needs enough sophistication to balance the local elements and the tradition of the dish, showing respect for the traditional dish.
At his restaurant, Feder does not vary Italian dishes but will choose dishes that suit Vietnamese tastes best. However, not everything in Italy can be found in Vietnam. For example with cappelletti – a pasta dish shaped like a hat and a specialty in Northern Italy – Feder chose to use walnuts instead of the traditional pine nuts, which are hard to find in Vietnam. This combination still brings the classic taste of Italy and Vietnamese imprint.
Feder also got used to having a cappuccino in the afternoon. He said Italians have an unwritten rule that cappuccino is only drunk in the morning, never after a meal. However, many Vietnamese people come to his restaurant and order cappuccino in the afternoon or even evening. Feder often explains to customers that cappuccino can cause digestive upset if taken in the afternoon.
“Those were interesting conversations. It showed me how food can bring cultures together,” he said.