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148-2 Jianguo Xi Lu
At Sapori, a homely and endearing new Italian on Jianguo Xi Lu (the tiny space is a revamped Coolzey restaurant), the atmosphere is the star. If there’s a moment when our fuwuyuan doesn’t appear genuinely excited to be there, we don’t catch it. From the kitchen, a chef and pizzaioli peer into the handsome but casual 14-seat café-restaurant to gauge the reaction to their cooking with giggly nervousness. The bounding, aproned owner Amy, co-founder of pizza chain Coolzey and Jiaozhou Lu’s Aura, holds court over her tables, taking orders, cooking and joking with all the arms-out-wide warmth of a proper Italian nonna.

Sapori (meaning ‘flavours’) is her solo project and a change of tack from Coolzey where, she told us, scale and budget force her to compromise on quality. Here, though, her traditional, mama-used-to-make, cookbook Italian staples use top-tier ingredients only.

From the appetiser menu, the perfectly taut bruschetta (38RMB/four – you can mix and match from toppings including eggplant, mushroom and green peppers) is testament to that promise. There’s no arguing with the flavours here: warm, slightly sweet cherry tomatoes have a perky brightness and work well with a hat of salami and gooey, molten brie on a slice of rustic brown baguette. The outstanding lasagne (58RMB) is like a meaty island on a melted lake of cheese. The dish comes out still bubbling, the cheese extending to the very edges, and the layers of pasta are stuffed with a veritable pint of creamy ricotta.

Pizzas are clearly the main focus though. They’re served on raw wooden boards which allow the hot pizza to breathe without getting soggy, and which Amy says she scrubs and then bakes in the pizza oven regularly to maintain the proper rustic finish. Our half-and-half Napolenta-Parma ham hybrid (78RMB) is made Roman-style, with a cracker-thin crust that’s floppy in the middle and slightly charred on the outside, served piping hot.

Unlike its sloppier, cheesier Neapolitan cousin, true Roman pizza is about fresh toppings rather than dough and gooiness. Even so, Amy could be more liberal with her cheese in parts to strike a better balance with the other ingredients. Nevertheless, this is still destination pizza. And missteps are easily forgiven in the company of a chef with as much ambition, optimism and youthful brio as this one. ‘Growing old is mandatory,’ says a plaque by the door. ‘Growing up is not’.

Alexander Barlow

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Venue name: Sapori
Opening hours: 10am-10pm, Wed-Mon
Metro: Dapuqiao
English address: 148-2 Jianguo Xi Lu, near Shaanxi Nan Lu, Xuhui district
Chinese address: 徐汇区建国西路148-2号, 近陕西南路