Review: Acqua e Farina - 'Food that comforts, satiate, and brings joy to your heart'
I have been told that tucked away in a nondescript, completely inconspicuous locale between Hillview MRT (DT3) and Beauty World (DT5), in fair Upper Bukit Timah Road where we lay our scene (from ancient grudge break to new mutiny and all that jazz), lies a right ole Italian institution, so devoid of the trappings of current trendy approaches that one might no sooner gloss over its existence no matter how blatant its presence. I would be a testament to that pitiful mistake, having been to the Prata shop next door countless of times only to conveniently ignore the mecca of fine Italian food to its left, the likes of which is a noted and brave amalgamation of North and South Italian culinary influences.
Their deliberate avoidance of the fanciful extends to their name: Acqua E Farina simply translates to Water and Flour, a mixture that, when combined, produces far too many staple classics we have come to love and enjoy. Acqua e Farina feels like it will blend in very nicely into the set of Sex and the City (circa 1995); Carrie bemoaning her lacklustre love life to her kind and accommodating best friends, whining about the most redundant female problems of 1995, over generous portions of pasta, pizzas, and bread, rain looming over the evening sky.
The brainchild of Co-founders and executive chefs Roberto Galbiati and Antonio Manetto, Acqua e Farina is that rarefied restaurant that boasts a hearty serving of authenticity in a family-style establishment. The dining room is painted yellow on one side, the colour of sunshine cheerfully reflected against the handsome dark wood of the tables and chairs. On the other is an artfully exposed brick wall adorned with a myriad of wine bottles from different regions. It all seems rather calculated, this detachment from Instagram-worthy decor, usually a convenient cover for mediocre food. But no, honey, that's not how they do it in Italy. Here, it's all about the food.
And what razor focus on food quality it is. Take the Gamberetti, Pancetta e Spinaci ($17.00). It is very simply beautifully pan-fried shrimps, thick and juicy, wrapped tightly with slightly salty pancetta and served on a fresh bed of sautéed spinach. There is just something about the way these shrimps are cooked that retains its soft yet bouncy finish, bursting forth their seafood juices into the mouth. I’ve never had the pleasure of enjoying two types of meats in a dish and I am certainly a rabid fan of having the best of both worlds.I scrutinise and examine the dish from all angles, making a mental note to attempt it on my own at home, though I am rather certain it would be a futile endeavour, for how does anything measure up to this plate of culinary masterpiece?
Tha Tagliere is served up next; a balanced platter of taste between the strong, savoury intensity of the cold cuts of Parma Ham, Mortadella, and Salami (a holy trinity of meats if I could say so myself) and the creamy almost frothy texture of mozzarella cheese. Here, it is presented alongside the best, most fluffy Focaccina (which is just a really cute name for a focaccia styled like a pizza) I’ve tasted this part of town. It ticks off all the boxes of what I deem to be the perfect academic example of an appetiser; Salty, Creamy, and Textural. Tick, tick, and… tick. Full marks.
But where Acqua e Farina shines in the realm of very fine and traditional Italian cooking is in its Spaghetti ai Gamberi ($24.00). A force to be reckoned with, each strand of pasta has been lovingly and precisely cooked to al dente perfection, not unlike the many restaurants I’ve had the misfortune of dining in where the al dente claims remain just that: claims. Aglio Olio seems to be that one dish every food joint thinks needs to be on their menu but seldom do you find an Aglio Olio worth its weight in a pinch of salt. The shiny coating of oil on the pasta dances happily with the emulsion of garlic and chillies (not chilli powder but actual cut chillies) with sufficient spiciness to provide heat to a dish that requires very little else. The prawns have, of course been deftly cooked to render the meat juicy without the much dreaded mush we associate with a less than fresh seafood.
The same can be said of the Fettuccine Nere alla Polpa di Granchio ($25.00). A fragrant medley of squid ink pasta cooked with generous chunks of crabmeat swimming in a wildly exotic tomato sauce (obviously made from scratch using magic tomatoes, of course). But I must point out the whole garlic bulbs that have been baked and caramelised to sweet perfection - garlic that is at once delightfully pungent and honeyed, perfect for consumption on its own.
If anything, the Italians have to be lauded for their almost religious fervour and passion for Pizza. Having recently watched an episode of Alex French Guy Cooking where he went to Italy to learn from pizza masters on the art of Pizza making, I have come to learn that pizza making, as taught by Pizza Artisan, Gino Sorbillo of La Pizzeria Sorbillo, Naples's best and most famous pizza hub, is to 1) know your classics, and then 2) add your emotions, your memories, your heart, and your hands. Finally 3) know your ingredients well. I am reminded of this Pizza Philosophy as I bite into Acqua E Farina’s Pizza Tartufo ($26.00). Mascarpone, Mozzarella, Mushrooms and Black Truffle comes together in an envious marriage of ingredients, so well portioned and delicately balanced to coax the full flavour of each ingredient.
Give me authenticity and honesty above Instagram-worthy fame any day. I know a few restaurants that can learn a thing or two from Acqua e Farina. For one, never bank solely on novelty and newness. Instead, think about what is it that you are truly good at and most importantly, serve food that comforts, satiate, and brings joy to your heart. That is what Acqua E Farina aims to achieve and that is precisely what it has accomplished in this little slice of Italy.