Italians create extraordinary pleasure from the simplest of things. Unlike their Gallic neighbours, who are the undisputed masters of alchemistic transformations, real Italian cuisine is the art of sacrifice.
Less is more. As few ingredients as possible, matched and complimented by big, simple flavours.
Because of this – and you must whisper this very quietly – the cuisines of coastal Italy wipe the floor with traditional French gastronomy. There is of course bad food in Italian seaside towns – in fact quite a lot – but they save that for the American (and now Chinese) tourists; who waddle pied piper fashion off cruise ships and into the first Romany pizza joint with a checked table cloth. The Italians hide the good stuff down dark Venetian alleys, in unassuming beachfront cafes and up long dusty tracks that have been the ruin of many a Ferragamo loafer.
And the same is true in Hong Kong. Run by reluctant exiles from the old country, the very best Italian restaurants retain a low profile. These sweaty Gercepies turn out plate after plate, year after year. Fortunately, restaurants like Brata and Trattoria Caffe Monteverdi have remained decidedly off TimeOut lists and away from Susan Jung’s expense account.
I’d also only really heard of Osteria Marzia via word of mouth. Friends have gushed about it’s fresh seafood since its opening in late 2017.
However, Osteria Marzia is anything but inconspicuous. It’s design is pure Edward Hopper with atmosphere spilling out into the Wanchai street courtesy of three-quarter length windows. In a sea of grey concrete and foreboding flyovers, the restaurant flaunts the warmth of the Amalfi.
The atmosphere intensifies as you walk through the door. A wave of sweet seafood from the morning’s catch (delivery) fills your nostrils and the sound of a Tuscan buxom beauties wailing unrequited love songs fills the air.
With negronis in hand we take our seat at the table. Before long we had a plate of warm bread, anchovies and good butter. The salty, saline punch from slithers of anchovy was revelatory. My only gripe was the scant portion size. Even with a meagre spread, two measly slithers of anchovy were no match for the generous bread.
We started with six unctuous Oysters which were served with a bucket red wine vinegar. The vinegar was finished with a fizzle of Prosecco, which caused the oyster to perform one final jittery death dance as she careered down your gullet.
Next, a plate of thinly slice sea bass was delivered with a flurry of showmanship and yet more Prosecco. The sparkling wine, lemon juice and pink rock salt were applied at the table, curing the delicate meat in front of our eyes. The result was such sweet pleasure, akin to eating the Little Mermaid. At $368 for a starter, the price is very punchy, but very worth it.
I once commented that the best hotel restaurants are not hotel restaurants, they are restaurants that happen to be in hotels. At the time, a newly opened Italian, Theo Minstal was very much the former. Osteria Marzia is very much the latter. You won’t be served anaemic bacon in the morning and you won’t have to watch grotty businessmen rub up against ladies of the night in the evening. Osteria Marzia is a proper restaurant that just happens to be on the ground floor of a very cool hotel. In fact, the only way you know you’re in a hotel is passing a stoney faced concierge on your way to the loo.
Back to the food. A betting man would place his house on this Italians scoring a early wonder goal in the form of the pasta course – a beautiful Baggio-esk thirty-yard set piece. Unfortunately, we have Gary Linekar shitting in the centre circle at Italia ’90. Neither of the two dishes (red prawn tonarrelli and fennel-pistachio pesto) were particularly good. Neither had troubled a pot of bubbling water for anywhere near long enough (I, like any sane person like my pasta al dente, but this was simply undercooked). And neither sauce lived up to the billing of the ingredients. The sauce coating the hard raw dough of the Red Prawn Tonarrelli had a burnt metallic fishy taste that bordered on unpleasant. The pesto dish was better but still not good enough. It’s truly a testament to the quality of the other dishes and to the overall experience that the pasta didn’t ruin proceedings.
Redemption quickly came in the form of a whole roasted sea bass and a big slab of sirloin. Both were butch dishes of moist meat that tasted exactly as they should have done. Although, I would have liked a little more caper in the fish’s caper butter and a little more anchovy in the beef’s anchovy butter.
The side dishes packed more than enough flavour to compensate. Our broccoli had sticky garlicky spice, the squashed roast potato had a deep rosemary perfume and zucchini fritti tasted of spring harvest.
But as much as flavour, it’s the experience you take away from Osteria Marzia. The whole experience is a blast. Our fresh off the boat antipodean waiter, Sebastian (who was fantastic all evening) encouraged and shared in lemonchello shots to round-off the meal.
Where the Frenchman practice culinary appreciation, the Italian seek culinary joy. And Osteria Marzia is pure joy.