The term cucina povera refers to the time-honored Italian tradition of squeezing as much nourishment (and enjoyment) as possible from humble, affordable staples.
Born of necessity, the approach — whose name essentially translates to “poor cooking” — began as a way to feed a lot of mouths without spending a lot of money. Over the years, however, it has yielded some of Italy’s most beloved culinary exports, including what may be its purest expression: the classic Roman dish cacio e pepe, a simple preparation of little more than spaghetti, pecorino cheese, black pepper, and a splash of the pasta’s starchy cooking water.
It may seem a tad strange, then, to honor this icon of nonnas’ ingenuity by topping it with a thick thatch of shaved truffle, famously one of the most expensive ingredients on earth. But thanks to a new promotion at Papi, the Causeway Bay Italian eatery, you can have your truffles and be povera too — at least, if you get there early.
Papi is currently offering its truffled cacio e pepe for HK$30 a plate to the first 15 diners to order it during dinner service. Show up late, however, and you can look forward to paying the regular price of HK$158 (or HK$128 un-truffled).
Cacio e pepe could be described, if simplistically, as a grown-up version of mac and cheese, and Papi’s version is no different, with all of the exquisite, creamy, salty satisfaction that implies. (What’s more, in a theatrical flourish — if that’s your thing — it’s mixed and truffle-ized tableside inside of a hollowed-out wheel of Pecorino.)
Those looking for the mushroomy wallop of black truffles, however, may be disappointed. For its preparation, Papi uses the scorzone, or summer truffle, a much subtler (and less valuable) fungus, which is in season now.
Nonetheless, the truffle is a pleasant addition to an already very pleasant dish, and at HK$30, you could be forgiven for climbing over your mother to order it before it runs out.
But the truffled cacio isn’t the only new addition at Papi, which has recently revamped its menu from the ground up.
If you prefer your cheesy carbs in a corn-based format, for instance, there are the polenta fries served with Stracchino, chives, and, again, truffles (HK$108). As with the cacio, the truffles take a back seat, but also as with the cacio, the combination of crisp-on-the-outside, pillowy-on-the-inside polenta fries and creamy, mildly tangy Stracchino cheese is a very nice combination in its own right.
Another nice starter was the moeche, soft-shell crab fried in a thin batter in the Venetian style (HK$118). Papi’s crisp coating was light enough to let the crustaceans’ naturally subtle sweetness do the driving, and rightly so — with a squeeze of lemon, the dish was straightforward and satisfying.
Sticking with shellfish, the astice pizza (HK$188) — with lobster, capers, onions, and buffalo mozzarella on a cracker-thin crust — is likely to please fans of both lobster and pizza, which is to say, most people. But unlike the mostly unadorned soft-shell crab, the delicate lobster meat (of which there was a fairly generous amount) felt a bit overpowered.
A special of seabass with white asparagus was well seasoned and clearly of high quality, but the seafood dish that stood out the most was the linguine ai ricci (HK$178), a Sicilian dish of pasta with breadcrumbs, parsley, and lobes of fresh uni.
The brininess of the sea urchin suffused the lightly dressed linguine, which also benefited from a welcome kick of red pepper, and the lobes of uni themselves were unctuous, saline, and slightly sweet — excellent, in other words.
For dessert, a very good pistachio gelato affogato (HK$88) — which swapped the traditional espresso pour-over for hot chocolate instead — was rich without feeling like too much a good thing, a fine choice to finish off a big Italian feast.
While Papi’s sleek blond wood and pastel-accented interiors may not scream “Old World” — let alone “cucina povera” — its new menu is certainly worth a look, especially if you get there early.
Papi is at 8 Cleveland St, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Noon-10pm (Sun-Thurs), noon-midnight (Fri & Sat)
Reservations: +852 2808 0820
MTR: Causeway Bay
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