“What are the differences between Cugini Saigon and Hanoi? The staff, the place, the guests.” That’s pretty much how Nico Ceccomoro, Tuscany-born executive chef of Cugini, sees it. In other words, Cugini Saigon is like the Hanoi restaurant’s slightly smaller twin tucked into the young, hip neighbourhood of Thao Dien. Ceccomoro even splits his time equally between two restaurants: two weeks in Hanoi, and two weeks in Saigon every month.
Ever since Cugini made its debut in Hanoi last October, it has been doing spectacularly well on a barebones concept. “We want to show people the real flavours of Italian food.” But isn’t Italian cuisine one of the most popular things around the world? Well, that’s what most people think of as Italian, but not quite the Italian that Ceccomoro, born into a family of restaurateurs, grew up around. “Unless someone has travelled a lot, they probably don’t know what authentic Italian food is.” To him, Italian cuisine has been adapted and, yes, bastardised by modern cooking in so many ways, pineapples on pizzas being the least of it. “It’s fine for other restaurants, but we don’t serve guests what doesn’t come from our culture.”
Even as a connoisseur, one might then feel tempted to ask what seems like an obvious question, what exactly is Italian food? It turns out Ceccomoro has a rather unpretentious definition. “Italian food means simple recipes, fresh ingredients, and good executions. That’s it.” He smiles, with extra emphasis on fresh ingredients. “The Caprese salad includes mozzarella, basils, tomatoes, and extra virgin olive oil. There’s nothing complicated there, but great ingredients make it beautiful.”
That’s why Ceccomoro goes to great lengths to secure authentic ingredients, importing from Italy flour, tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, and cheese; from France seafood; and from Australia, meat. He does incorporate organic vegetables from local market to certain extents, but nothing sub-par that can compromise the quality of a dish. Suppliers and local farms have catered well to his taste buds thus far, but Ceccomoro still has to go without many ingredients like truffles, certain types of mushrooms and mozzarella. “If we cannot source good ingredients for a recipe, we just don’t do it. We don’t replace them with something else.”
From these raw ingredients, Cugini’s kitchen makes everything else. From focaccia and canola, to pizza and pastas, but also the sauces such as demi-glace and mayonnaise. Minus the Gelato Italia’s ice-cream, you name it, Cugini makes it in-house. Other than contraptions exotic to Vietnamese culture like the pasta machine or the pizza oven adorning the open kitchen, and the slightly ritzy decor with a cocktail bar, there’s nothing too elaborate about Ceccomoro’s approach. Just like the rustic philosophy of Italian cuisine, Ceccomoro and his staff build upon remarkably simple ideas with love and finesse. “We make sure that everything tastes good and looks good.”
It is no surprise that, without much fanfare, the locals have already taken to Cugini just three months in after its opening in BLOQ’s food court. Instead of just the suit-wearing, jewellery-laden crowds often seen in upscale restaurants, guests at Cugini come from every walk of life, who, during football hours, can be heard boisterously cheering between plates of antipasti and focaccia.
“The food here doesn’t break the bank. You don’t have to have an amazing job to afford it.” This middle of the road price range is in part thanks to the legacy of the enormously successful Cousins group, a well known owned by ex-wine distributor Cyprien Pierlovsi, whom Ceccomoro refers to as his brother. Cugini, Italian for “Cousins”, is a nod to its Euro gasto pub predecessor as well as the bond that Ceccomoro and Pierlovsi shares. “Our shared passion for culinary service motivates us to give everything we’ve got.” Though it seems, by the look of the afternoon hustle and bustle in their Thao Dien’s venue, that their partnership has already borne fruits, the small restaurant, one-seventh of Hanoi’s Cugini, is only the first step to test the waters in the South. “If this one does well, we’ll land here full-force.”