Chef Alex Wong grew up with an Asian remix of Italian food: his mother would splash salty Maggi seasoning into their spaghetti Bolognese. "Because I'm Chinese-Vietnamese, it wasn't a ragù, it was more of stir-fried beef with tomato paste," he says. "It was tasty, but when I first tried proper Italian, I was blown away."
He credits schoolfriend Daniel for this culinary introduction. "After school, we'd go to his nonna's place, because his parents were working," he says. Daniel's nonna was from Naples, so their penne was flavoured with tomato and basil, Napoletana-style. "They'd always have fresh pane di casa, fresh bread, on the table, it blew my mind," he says.
These two styles of Italian food – traditional and Asian-inspired – would end up shaping his career as a chef.
"It's everyone's pasta nemesis," Wong says. "It was very painful to make and only two people in the kitchen could make it – me being one of them." It's a Sardinian custom to eat them on the Day of the Dead or to celebrate a good harvest. At this restaurant, culurgiones were always on the menu.
"It looks like little braids of wheat," the chef says, describing the dumpling-shaped dish. Pleating each one was a challenge, requiring 16 meticulous folds. "You've got to pinch it hard enough, otherwise it won't seal," he says. "If you don't do it right, the filling comes out and that's no good." You wouldn't want potato, pecorino and mint to spill out. Or a blend of pumpkin, ricotta and spinach. Sometimes butter-roasted Jerusalem artichokes, mixed with cheese, were tucked inside the culurgiones.
It wasn't until Wong opened Allegra Dining, in 2017, that he considered slipping Asian ingredients into his Italian dishes, like his mum used to. "What first inspired me was when LuMi first opened," he says. That Pyrmont restaurant launched in 2014, with chef Federico Zanellato presenting crab with puffed sushi rice, ravioli flavoured with pumpkin and uni, and parmesan custard in a delicate chawanmushi style.
Wong remembers being knocked out by LuMi's brioche with caramelised koji butter. "I had never used koji before," he says, referring to the starter that gives Japanese staples – like miso and soy sauce – their savoury punch.
Mitch Orr's ACME opened around the same time as LuMi. His Italian menu didn't stick to European borders, either. His pig's head macaroni was sparked by Filipino sisig, his black garlic and burnt chilli linguine resembled mee goreng and his idea for the Sydney restaurant came from daily visits to an udon shop during his first Tokyo trip. ACME was inspired by Asian institutions on his doorstep, too: "It was 100 per cent influenced by Chinatown and restaurants like Golden Century," he says.
Orr notes that there's plenty of overlap between Asian and Italian cuisines: they fill tables with rice and noodles, they turn up the umami levels when needed, they both have a strong sense of regionality and have produced enduring dishes from impoverished circumstances. Dropping Asian ideas into your Italian food is something he credits Alessandro Pavoni and Federico Zanellato for pioneering when they worked together at Ormeggio at the Spit more than a decade ago. Other chefs have shared this reflex, too: O Tama Carey would sneak curry leaves into her Italian menu at Berta, back in 2014, while Trisha Greentree continues to do this in subtle ways at 10 William St and Fratelli Paradiso.
"One of the first things I did was my own Italian-inspired XO sauce."
Like Wong, Greentree grew up with Asian ingredients flavouring her Italian food: her Filipino mother would prepare spaghetti Bolognese with a hit of fish sauce. "The traditional Filipino spaghetti is with hot dogs," she says. "That's a whole new level."
At her restaurants, the chef uses Asian ingredients in subtle – rather than attention-calling – ways. Her crudo with blood orange might be garnished with a herbal note of makrut. Or she might flavour something with yuzu – a move that feels very Italian to her, rather than strictly Japanese. "That's also very Sicilian. To me, citrus is Italy," she says.
The chef remembers when some Asian Australian diners detected a Szechuan flavour profile in an Italian dish. "But it's not intended at all. There is no way in hell that it's intended," she says. Greentree tends to balance flavours in a certain way. "It just happens to be that it leans towards an Asian palate. That's all it is."
Wong recalls eating her dishes; a squid salad with fish sauce stands out in particular. Even though her Asian flourishes are understated, you'll notice if you're aware enough, he believes. "Asian people can tell, for sure."
Like the aforementioned chefs, Wong has been experimenting with Asian flavours in his Italian food for years now. "Allegra was like a stepping stone, I tested a lot of things there," he says. "One of the first things I did was my own Italian-inspired XO sauce." So he dropped in 'nduja and pancetta instead of Jinhua ham, and dialled up the saltiness with capers.
"I used to make a lamb ragù and I would season it with fish sauce. Because traditionally in Italian, there are recipes where lamb would be served with anchovy," he says. With this Asian twist, he was channelling his childhood days of mum salting Bolognese with Maggi seasoning.
These Asian riffs on Italian food can be found on his menus now, too. At Lana in Sydney's Circular Quay, where he's currently the head chef, he seasons his acqua pazza broth with Thai basil, Korean kombu and Chinese dried prawns. And the Mannaggia a Trois pop-up he runs with chefs Andrea Sonnante and Hai Le is all about exploring the two cuisines in creative ways.
Originally, they planned to stage their next dinner at Sonnante's Sagra restaurant in Darlinghurst, plating Chinese doughnuts with lardo and liver pâté, and presenting rigatoni with holy basil, king prawns and salumi XO sauce. But with the current COVID-19 outbreak restricting all Sydney restaurants to takeaway and delivery only, they've focused on offering at-home meal packs of their food. A recent menu featured a chickpea dip spiced with Szechuan peppers – ready to be scooped up with long deep-fried curls of pasta fritta. There was a burrata drizzled with scallop sambal, made by close friend Andy Wirya from Queen Chow, too.
Restaurant dining might be currently on pause, but Wong's mind continues to buzz with ideas for future Mannaggia a Trois menu: he's plotting to make smoked Parmesan chawanmushi, ginger-shallot salsa verde for a fish dish, and stracciatella with black sesame and saffron pappardelle – inspired by Japanese goma ae. Lifting the borders and mixing in different culinary influences makes these dishes possible.
"Old-school Italian is good, but it's boring sometimes," he jokes.