Strolling through the impressive entrance, I am greeted with a warm welcome from Paolo, L’Opera’s resident patron. Paolo is also a highly recognised member of the Association of Italian Sommeliers and the Worldwide Sommeliers Association – both internationally revered. This venture is the latest addition to the L’Opera Group which also runs several other successful restaurants across Asia.
The interior is an attractively decorated space in warming tones of golden brown and orange with splashes of mustard yellow, reminiscent of that distinctive ochre shade prevalent in the villages that sit along the Mediterranean coastline. It is rustically furnished with wooden beams, a matching polished wooden floor and comfy leather and rattan chairs, lending a casual yet stylish air to the room. Vistas of Tuscan landscapes dot the walls, almost making one believe one is vacationing somewhere in a rural Italian village.
Paolo is charming and effusive and urges my dining companion and I to leave our menu choices in his capable hands. Much of the unique quality and appeal of Italy stems from the variety found within its 20 regions. Each region has its own individuality, culture reflected through art, architecture and cuisine. L’Opera, whilst embracing predominantly Tuscan cuisine, also offers the best of other regions.
Whilst we await Paolo’s return, I am aware of an unobtrusive and appropriate soundtrack in the background. Yes, you’ve guessed it, Italian opera! Opera was born in Italy around the year 1600, and for those non-aficionados, Italian is the one and only language of opera, regardless of the origin of the actual opera itself. Many famous operas were written by both Italian composers such as Rossini and Puccini and also by foreign composers, the most well known being Handel and Mozart. Everyone recalls The Three Tenors and the aria Nessun Dorma, even if only from its adoption as a World Cup anthem.
Paolo arrives carrying a colourful pizza margherita, straight from the wood-fired oven which imparts this crispy crusted classic cheese and tomato combination with a pleasant, slightly charred and smoky flavour. Originating from Naples, the home of the pizza, margherita is for many Italians a representation of the country. Created in 1889 by a renowned chef following the unification of the Kingdom of Italy for Queen Margherita of Savoy, it is a pizza modelled around the Italian flag: tomato for red, mozzarella for white and basil for green.
Our pizza is followed by a signature chef’s dish of vitello tonnato from Piedmont in the north west, comprising thin slivers of tender veal bathed in a creamy mayonnaise dressing, flavoured with tuna and garnished with piquant anchovies, capers and lemon. The tradition dictates a five-hour resting period to fully develop the flavours you seek to appreciate in this deceptively simple classic. This one has definitely felt the love!
Pasta served here is an artisanal variety from Gragnano, a hilltop village near Naples. The village established its reputation as the location of the first pasta factory in the world to be awarded IGP certification. Its celebrated dried pasta is made from combining the finest semolina with spring water from the surrounding mountains.
Paolo then brings us taglierini al profumo di tartufo, or thin egg noodles in truffle sauce, an authentic Tuscan recipe. Tuscany has the enviable distinction of being a source of both black and white truffles, the so-called ‘diamonds of gastronomy’, as much because of their rarity and resulting price. This dish does not disappoint.
We are also offered an equally satisfying spaghetti with fresh Italian buratta and tomatoes. Whilst slightly less decadent than our previous truffle dish, the buratta contributes a creamy, almost buttery texture which, when partnered with the sweet flesh of the cherry tomatoes, elevates this dish to a new level of taste.
Alternatively, one can choose a homemade ravioli from a short selection, including a tasty parcel filled with seafood in a smoked salmon sauce. King prawns, sole or a number of Angus steaks are also available, including both rib-eye and tenderloin served in a creamy porcini mushroom sauce or yet again truffle sauce. In Tuscan cuisine you will find just about everything can be infused with truffle, from balsamic vinegar to pecorino cheese!
To end our evening, Paolo insists on us sampling several desserts, including a panna cotta with surprising honeyed truffle and sweet balsamic, and a signature zuccotto, a semi-frozen sponge dessert originating in Florence containing a local artisan Italian gelato made here in Phuket.
Following the traditional Italian after-dinner lemon refreshment, in the words of that famous operatic pop song, sung by the Italian opera star Andrea Bocelli, ‘Con Te Partiro’, and for those less fluent, it is sadly ‘time to say goodbye!’ Tonight, we have experienced a little corner of Italy, authentic Italian dishes with typically convivial Italian family spirit.
Chris is a former Michelin Guide Inspector who, following an international career in hospitality spanning 30 years in both the Middle East and Asia, has now settled in Thailand and contributes a monthly restaurant column.