By Laura Barnes
Based in the UAE capital, Bice at the Hilton Abu Dhabi is making the most of being one of the only authentic Italian restaurants in the Emirate.
An international Italian branded restaurant does not always prove popular with foodies and chefs. There are plenty of examples of "authentic" Italian restaurants in the market that are way off the mark, offering deep thick crust pizzas and alfredo pasta. So it is good to know there are exceptions to the rule, most notably in the shape of Bice.
Opening the first Bice outlet back in 1926 in Milan, the second outlet was opened in Sardinia years later before the brand went international, first to New York, and then to Europe and Asia.
Now with 24 Bice restaurants worldwide, more than 1800 employees on the books, and annual total gross sales reaching US $50 million, the Middle East plays host to four Bice restaurants with two more on the cards.
But it is Bice at the Hilton Abu Dhabi that is grabbing the limelight right now, as it recently became the first restaurant in the UAE to be certified by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, a true marker that the restaurant is more than an Italian restaurant chain; it is a hallmark of authenticity, high standards, and the perseverance of maintaining Italian culture and tradition through food.
With the front-of-house led by Alessandro Tatulli, restaurant manager, and the back-of-house by Bice chef Luciano Gandolfo, the Italian twosome have a great partnership, working alongside each other to educate diners and constantly looking at ways of improving food and service.
"One of the keys to our success is that we [myself and chef Luciano] work great together. If we are happy, the staff are happy, guests come back, and the management are happy. It is a great result for everybody involved in our restaurant," says Tatulli.
Working for Bice Abu Dhabi for the past two years, both Tatulli and chef Luciano previously worked in the region, so they are fully aware of the constraints, from food and wine, to a guest's knowledge of the cuisine.
Currently working with a wine cellar that has around 260 labels, compared to a fine dining restaurant in Dubai this is a rather small list, for Abu Dhabi however it is impressive. Tatulli comments though that it could be bigger.
"The Hilton Abu Dhabi is owned by Abu Dhabi National Hotels (ADNH). It imports wines and spirits so we can only sell wines that they import. It is a challenge as naturally, they see it as a business; whereas wine for me is a passion," Tatulli says.
While the majority of wines on the list are French, Italian wines account for around 30%, not as much as the Bice team would like, but it is something Tatulli has little control over.
Despite sourcing ingredients and creating the menu though, chef Luciano's main challenge was educating the diners, but after two years he has successfully done this, although he still comes across diners that are not as well versed in Italian cuisine as he hopes.
"Europeans and Americans are generally competent in knowing about Italian cuisine. The main problem lies with diners from this region. They do not have the culture or history of eating our cuisine, so they think it just consists of lasagne, pizzas and spaghetti bolognaise," comments chef Luciano.
"But we have meats, fish, salads and pasta. Italy has 21 regions all with their own cuisines, so the food will be different in Piedmont compared to Sicily, and again different in Naples compared to Rome."
While trying to appeal to a number of tastes, chef Luciano is quick to add that he can make dishes on request, as long as they are truly Italian, something they have had to teach some diners.
"There are more than 3000 ways to cook pasta, so there is plenty of variety. If guests ask for something that isn't Italian then I explain why it isn't and what might work instead. Two years ago we had Arabic guests that were ordering food like this, but now the same people are coming back and truly understand about Italian cuisine and what we are doing," comments Tatulli.
Offering a range of dishes including bresaola with arugula and marinated artichokes, pepper sesame crusted blue fin tuna with roasted potato and sautéed sweet bell pepper, and dry linguine with pesto Genovese, feta cheese and fresh tomato, chef Luciano works hard to use ingredients from Italian producers for that true taste of authenticity.
Working alongside suppliers like Classic Fine Foods and Middle East Trading, chef Luciano first sees what people want, and then what is available in the market.
Although most items are readily available in the market compared to three years ago, occasionally Bice Abu Dhabi will request ingredients that are not available. With both chef Luciano and Tatulli having strong connections with suppliers, they generally receive any special requests, which Tatulli says is not only good for them but for the supplier as well, as they can then offer the product to more restaurants in the market.
Not only wanting to bring in products that are not currently available elsewhere in the market, chef Luciano also likes to work with seasonal produce, as it means the menu can then be changed regularly.
"Every month we introduce two or three new dishes, of course there are some items that will always remain on the menu, but it means we can work with the seasons and have winter white truffle promotions or porcini mushroom promotions. Not only do we have more flexibility, but it educates the guests as well," chef Luciano comments.
Offering niche products has not always been easy though, as Tatulli discovered with Bice Abu Dhabi's cheese and olive oil trolley. Now a focal part of the restaurant and featuring more than 32 different oils and vinegars, Tatulli found it difficult to educate diners about the different oils, now however, he says some guests request certain oils depending on what they are eating.
"We had a similar problem with the cheese trolley. Every seven to 10 days we change the cheese, so at the beginning there was a lot of waste. People think Italian cheese is just Parmesan, but there are more than 4200 cheeses from all over Italy; it is not just the French who can make cheese," says chef Luciano.
Now that the clientele base is more familiar with Italian cuisine, it is expanding its base and constantly pushing the cuisine forward, while still maintaining high standards.
With a 21-strong team, the 130-140 cover a day restaurant has doubled business in one year, but due to restraints on space it cannot increase business by this amount for the following year.
Instead, chef Luciano and Tatulli hope to grow in terms of quality of the food and service, and would rather serve 100 people top class food, rather than rush to serve 150 people and leave some diners unsatisfied. A sure testament to a true Italian restaurant, where slow food and passion comes first.For all the latest travel news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.