HONG KONG, Jan 26 — Federico Fellini once said, “La vita è una combinazione di magia e pasta.” Life is a combination of magic and pasta.
In the late Italian director’s films, food (and not only pasta) is magic. There is the earthy, back to basics fare at a family home in Amarcord (1973) and there is sheer gluttony in Satyricon (1969), the way only ancient Romans can manage.
Everyone eats, with relish, with abandon. Food, according to the Italians, is a visceral pleasure.
Chef Umberto Bombana understands this desire. In 2010, inspired by Fellini’s 1963 film 8½ (or Otto e Mezzo in Italian), he opened 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong’s Central district to acclaim; it has the remarkable distinction of being the first Michelin 3-star Italian restaurant outside of Italy.
Lunch, with a concise degustation menu, is inviting. To our surprise, this isn’t the first time we’ve dined here.
We realise this only upon entering the restaurant, with its stark white walls and squares of mirrors hovering above us. A flicker of recognition, a memory. A birthday lunch several years ago: Malaysians, Americans and Taiwanese having Italian in Hong Kong. The world grows ever smaller.
Natural light suffuses the dining room, bleaching the colours further. Miles of white tablecloth. Our first appetiser — white asparagus, Oscietra caviar and Parmigiano-Reggiano foam — adds a touch of sunny cheer to the space and awakens our palates.
Warm blue lobster with broccolini emulsion and lobster jus follows — such decadence! — yet it is the restaurant’s homemade pasta that astounds. Our server shaves black truffle over our tagliolini with butter and parmesan: a luxurious shower of the tartufo nero.
One of Bombana’s signature creations is his homemade cavatelli, shellfish ragout and sea urchin. To call it a seafood pasta bisque would be too reductionist; the dish is full of umami and, yes, tastes of the ocean, of Sicily.
My Italian friend Manuel would love this, I reckon. He grew up in Trento, in the heart of the Italian Alps, but his late father hailed from the south, from near the sea.
My friend grew up skiing on powdered snow slopes but in his veins, he once told me, was the siren call of the waves, of the Mediterranean.
We were in our early twenties, still students. I was spending a few days at his family home, after attending his father’s wake.
And he was teaching me to make a calzone in his kitchen. It’s what his mother would allow: pasta required more skill; even fools could make a calzone, she said.
Tasting Bombana’s cavatelli, I can’t help but agree with Manuel’s mother. There is some magic in good, even great, pasta.
Our mains arrive shortly after: short rib and beef tenderloin with whipped potato, red wine and plum sauce for one; baby lamb from Aveyron with aromatic herbs, black olives and caponata (Sicilian eggplant salad) for the other.
Jess would love the lamb, we reckon. She was the one who first brought us to 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana; she could always be counted on for organising birthday celebrations.
Now our friends are all scattered: Jess in Hong Kong, Jenny in Taipei, Paul in New York. Randy is in Toronto but we aren’t sure. Discussing their locations, we bring them to our table, our dining companions once more.
If life is magic and pasta, then much of that magic is who we share our pasta with, no?
To end our meal, there is millefoglie (or mille-feuille in French), a flaky pastry layered with creamy zabaglione, hazelnut gelato and vanilla sauce. There are fresh strawberries, sorbet and vanilla cream. A selection of petit fours, and then coffee. Italian roast, of course.
Italian food, at its very core, is about a channel from the heart to the belly.
Past the endless glasses of Chianti, the overflowing bowls of bucatini, is a centuries old tale of a nonna making food for her loved ones, for her famiglia.
The rain of tartufo is a nice touch, the awards and stars well deserved, but the food would be just as fine without.
An Italian meal, as Fellini understood passionately, is about amore, both romantic and familial, robust and fragile in equal measure.
Every bite is life-changing. Because life changes in every moment.
No one knows what the future holds. Some grow closer with every passing year; others drift apart, separating and going their own ways.
There is only now, clearly, and what is before us: a plate of homemade pasta, suffused with life, love, magic.
8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana
Shop 202, Landmark Alexandra, 18 Chater Rd, Central, Hong Kong
Open Mon-Sat lunch 12pm-2:30pm & dinner 6:30pm–10:30pm; Sun closed
Tel: 852 2537 8859