D.O.C. Gastronomia Italiana

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Critics' pick
Photograph: courtesy venue
390 Dagu Lu
Ahead of our visit to much-buzzed about new Italian D.O.C., we Google the acronym. Does it stand for Date of Completion? Department of Commerce? Disciples of Christ? None of them, actually – it’s ‘Denominazione di Origine Controllata’, which, as the menu explains, is a quality assurance label for Italian foods certifying they’ve been produced in a specific region using prescribed methods.

It’s the kind of concept that could easily be alienating in a smug, Western middle class-type way, but the Australian team here (a self-described ‘passionate collective of foodies’ including Steve Cliff and Tony Finocchiaro of The Camel) have done just the opposite, if the hordes are anything to go by. On each of our midweek visits the place is packed. Two simple factors explain it: location and food.

Manning the kitchen is ex-Issimo chef Stefano Pace, who has headed up several five-star hotel restaurants across China including at Le Royal Meridien in Shanghai and The Opposite House in Beijing. His menu draws deeply on his Italian roots: soups, salads, pizza, pasta, grilled meats and fish and a section devoted to mozzarella in various guises From the fryer (or as D.O.C. more prettily puts it, ‘fritti’), arancino arborio (75RMB), traditionally a way of using up leftover risotto, are a trio of golf ball-sized rice balls deep-fried to crisp, golden perfection: the crunchy shell housing a gloriously gooey interior of mozzarella and rice studded with peas and tiny bits of mortadella, with a dipping pot of tangy tomato sauce on the side. They’re so filling they could easily be shared between three.

Zucchini flowers (75RMB) stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies are for dedicated fans only, with the intensely briny, fishy hit played off by a drizzle of piquant balsamic. They’re slightly let down by the pastella batter, which could be a touch crispier. Wood-fired pizzas, made with imported petali flour and San Pellegrino water, dominate the mains list and at 98-148RMB are priced on a par with Mercato or Matto. The catamarano abruzzese is an original standout: the canoe-shaped creation arrives on a bed of arugula drizzled with balsamic vinegar, its nicely charred, chewy base carpeted with moist, fatty slices of porchetta nemi (oven-roasted pork belly, the house specialty), elastic stracciatella (one of the few cheeses sourced locally, from Solo Latte), shredded radicchio and ‘mustard fruits’– akin to candied orange peel – piled on top. The bitter leaves and marmalade sweetness cut pleasingly through the rich meat and cheese.

Of the pastas, ragout made ‘nonna’s way’ (85RMB) is a tangle of yellow ribbons, smothered in a rich, multi-layered sauce that tastes like it’s been lovingly simmered for hours. The milk-marinated veal comes in rustic chunks and it’s a warming dish more suited to cold winter nights.

Dessert, a bellwether of authenticity in any Italian restaurant, doesn’t disappoint: the incredibly moist and not too sweet tiramisu comes pretty close to its brag of being ‘the best in the whole wide wide world!’ but it’s the trio of fruit gelato that stuns: halfway between a granita and a sorbet, the lemon flavour has the perfect palate-cleansing sourness to offset all the previous gluttony.

Service is brisk and efficient even in these early days, with waitstaff happy to explain the liberally used Italian terms, but don’t expect to linger over that last bite. While the swift table turns can irritate, the hustle-bustle of the place is a huge part of its chemistry. With a fine dining concept due to open on the second floor soon, D.O.C. looks set to become even more popular. Go while you can still get a table, we say.
Venue name: D.O.C. Gastronomia Italiana
Opening hours: Mon-Sun 11am-late
Metro: Huangpi Nan Lu
English address: 390 Dagu Lu, near Chengdu Bei Lu, Jingan district
Chinese address: 大沽路390号, 近成都北路