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Photograph: Amy Snelling
33 Mengzi Lu
Original restaurant review from 2012

All the set pieces are in place in this glowing nook of a dining room: chalkboard easels, wood tabletops with a bit of rough texture left in, beams in the ceiling, an imported pizza oven. This new Italian venue, opened by Chinese-American former investment banker John Liu, radiates country house-chic, and its alluring interior calls you in from the street.

The first sign of things to come is the bookshelf heaving with renowned cookbooks, from The Silver Spoon, a Bible of Italian cookery, to The Big Fat Duck, a tome from Britain’s lionised Heston Blumenthal. These are not just props though, Liu spent months compiling a spreadsheet of over 1,400 recipes from these pages which he whittled down to the several dozen now on the menu. There’s not a single Italian in the house but Liu’s menu strives cleverly to show off the cuisine’s brilliant and versatile spirit. Liu is not a chef himself; his Chinese chef, and several other staff, are culled from Colabo, an affordable Italian stalwart in Shanghai.

The calamari fritti (98RMB, pictured above) are a thatch of exquisitely tender battered baby squid with a few paper thin deep-fried preserved lemon slices paired with a squid ink garlic aioli. The dish contrasts the golden crisp squid with the matte black of the creamy aioli dip. The squid is piled on folded brown paper and the wooden serving board also holds a wedge of lemon wrapped in gauze, so you can squeeze out the juice minus the seeds. Plating, along with almost everything here, has been carefully designed to feel rustic but particular to details. Liu even read a PhD thesis on menu engineering.

The pizzas have a wide crust with giant char bubbles. It’s an excellent dough with a bit of elasticity, chewy but not pasty. The salsiccia (128RMB) is superb, scattered with spicy house-made sausage chunks, mushrooms, red onions and Parmigiano Reggiano. We’d come back just to order this as a main.

The pastas include the Roman classic cacio e pepe (pepper and cheese, 118RMB). The twist is its presentation in a crunchy parmesan ‘bowl’. Frying the cheese brings out an added salty depth and the textural contrast of crisped bits of cheese with the pliant pasta is the dish’s main delight. The orecchiette alla bolognese (158RMB) or ‘little ears’ pasta is served in a long-simmered sauce with roasted bone marrow. The marrow is fabulously unctuous and the upright beef bone makes for a dramatic plate.

A huge portion of roast chicken (168RMB) fragrant with rosemary, sage and garlic and jacketed in superbly crispy skin is a standout. The chicken is brined overnight for a succulent interior but the accompanying crisp-skinned potato slices could use a sauce to moisten their chalky insides.

Service at Scarpetta is enthusiastic and perfectly bilingual – both Liu and his impressively dedicated restaurant manager, an Italian food aficionado himself, can chat in English and Chinese about the minute details of recipes. Scarpetta means ‘little shoe’ in Italian, but colloquially, it refers to bread used to sop up the last bit of sauce on your plate. It’s a fitting name for this crafty new trattoria, calibrated to lure you back for more bites.
Venue name: Scarpetta
Opening hours: 5.30pm-10pm daily
Admission: Meal for two around 400RMB
Metro: Madang Lu
English address: 33 Mengzi Lu, near Madang Lu, Huangpu district
Chinese address: 黄浦区蒙自路33号, 近马当路