Written by Karn Chatikavanij
July issue ‘Italian’, 2023
Slowly rebuilding Italy region by region in Bangkok with his multiple trattorias across city, Paolo Vitaletti is the master restaurateur who somehow manages to make any outlet he opens an instant staple in town. Having grown up in a family of butchers with a deli, the man behind Appia, Peppina, and Giglio has never been a stranger to home cooking, big family dinners, and artisanal-quality foods. Taking notes from his upbringing, the chef has journeyed across the globe with his culinary know-how, passion for fine ingredients, and fervent desire to share the delights and diversity of traditional Italian cooking. In his experience of living the chef life abroad, Vitaletti has graced the kitchens of a multitude of big names, from Harry’s Bar in London and the Beverly Wilshire in LA to the Four Seasons in Maui and Aman hotels in Jordan and China.
Now settled in Thailand, Paolo heads a series of beloved familial restaurants that have remarkably all become staunch favourites amongst locals and expats alike. How has he done it? The chef shares with us his love of Italian ingredients, the key to a great pizza, and what makes a successful Italian restaurant.
Q: How did your culinary journey in Thailand all start?
A: I knew I loved Bangkok when I left my first job in Thailand at the Shangri-La to move to the Aman at the Summer Palace in China. The Thai lifestyle and the booming F&B industry—they quickly called me back. When I did return, I started my first independent business. It took six months of hard work, frequent travelling in search of suppliers, farmers, and the best wines, and my mother’s expert training of staff in the craft of homemade pasta to open Appia in March 2013. I loved having my own restaurant and found so much joy in running it that I opened other regional Italian eateries—or “trattorias”, as we call them—like Peppina, our Neapolitan pizzeria, then the Florentine restaurant Giglio, and finally Cetara, a southern Italian coastal restaurant. It is wonderful to be able to showcase the unique cuisines that different regions of Italy have to offer.
Q: Do you have a favourite out of all your restaurants?
A: I don’t—or I can’t—really have a favourite! But of course, Appia is the closest to my heart, as it is my first-ever restaurant. It also gave me a special opportunity to create a legacy with my mother’s cooking. It’s the restaurant that most closely reflects my personal culinary and regional origins.
Q: What do you love most about Italian food?
A: I personally love it for its outstanding variety of dishes and flavours, as well as its focus on quality ingredients. It’s a produce-driven cuisine, which means we can make fantastic dishes out of simple, seasonal, and high-quality ingredients. Italy is geographically very lucky with fabulous weather and natural spaces that allow us to grow some of the tastiest ingredients in the world. Some of the best Italian dishes can be made with just three ingredients because the ingredients are so good. This is likely why it’s so popular all over the world, too. With just a few well-selected ingredients, you can make so many different Italian dishes.
Q: What is one Italian dish that you think is under-appreciated?
A: Veal Milanese. I’ve been struggling to find a true work-of-art, classic Veal Milanese in Thailand. It’s a shame because it is such a delicious dish!
Q: Peppina’s pizzas have won multiple awards, including the best pizza in Thailand in last year’s 50 Top Pizza. What makes a great pizza?
A: At Peppina, we adhere to the rules of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an association created to promote and protect the rich heritage of pizza. But the main rules are simple: A great pizza is light and well-leavened, and it should be topped with small-production, locally-farmed ingredients. Never use refined flour. Oh, and it should be crafted by hand by a passionate pizzaiolo. Trust me, this really makes a difference.
Q: Both Italian food and Thai food are loved all over the world. Do you see any similarities between the two?
A: There are actually some surprising similarities between the two when thinking about it from a technical, gastronomic, and even historical standpoint. For example, the Romans used to ferment fish to create a deep umami element to flavour their food. That’s very similar to Isaan’s pla ra or the common use of fish sauce in Thai cuisine. The Romans also used honey to marinate or dress meats, adding sweetness to a savoury recipe, much like how Thais like to use palm sugar in their sauces or add sugar to their noodle dishes.
But the biggest similarity between the two cuisines isn’t in how they are prepared but in how they are enjoyed. There is so much conviviality, pride, and passion surrounding one’s own cultural cuisine, for Italians and Thais. In both, the dining experience is always best when it is a social or communal experience. Sharing dishes across the table with a large group of friends or family is such a key feature of both cultures.
Q: What makes a successful Italian restaurant in Thailand?
A: My first rule for any successful restaurant is good hospitality. To have a successful restaurant, you must make sure you share the art of taking care of people to every single member of your team. All your staff must carry an attitude of giving and a can-do approach, and they should all be driven towards the number one goal of making guests happy. Italians, just like Thais, hold good hospitality deep within their culture. Therefore, a successful Italian restaurant will always give their guests the best possible treatment because this is also simply an authentic showcase of Italian culture. The goal with all my restaurants is to transport our patrons to the true Italian lifestyle, giving them the best service and the best products available.
Q: Anything exciting coming up that you’d like to share with our readers?
A: I’m excited to share some news about my new project coming soon. We are opening a small pasta shop called Pastaiolo, and it will focus on handmade pasta, which can either be enjoyed at the restaurant or as a DIY experience at home. The first location will be in The Emsphere.
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