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Restaurant review: Pasta Fresca in Singapore

Not long after sitting down to talk with Salvatore Carecci at his flagship restaurant, Pasta Fresca Da Salvatore on Bukit Timah Road, SHAMUS SILLAR discovers that they have more in common than just a love of Italian food.
Salvatore Carecci is from the south of Italy (Lecce in Puglia); I lived in Sicily for a year. Carecci has spent plenty of time in the nondescript town of Miri, Sarawak, while working as a professional diver off the coast of Brunei; I’m familiar with Miri from visits to friends who also work there. Carecci’s restaurant chain extends into China; in 2005 I wrote a review of one of his outlets in Shanghai.

A passage from that old review is worth repeating since it seems to strike a chord at the Bukit Timah restaurant:

“The décor is a fraction dour, the menus dog-eared and my table a little wobbly, but home-style Italian cooking rarely comes with fussy aesthetic considerations. The food is the thing.”

Indeed. If you’re looking for no-frills – that is, genuine – pastas, pizzas, mains and desserts, there’s no better place than Pasta Fresca. Such has been the case for two decades now, as this month marks the twentieth anniversary of Carecci’s business.

“Back then, Bukit Timah Road had nothing,” he says when I ask for his memories of Singapore, circa 1989. “Nothing!”

“What about the kopitiams?”

“No, they’ve only been along this road for a few years.”

So, it must have been risky to open this far from the city.

“Put it this way: when I drove past this spot with a friend, I said ‘This is where I’ll open a business.’ He replied: ‘You must be joking! There’s no way it will work.’ A few months later, when I was already busy with customers, he rang me to try to come on board.”

Here’s something I didn’t know. Pasta Fresca began life not as a restaurant but as a shop where people could come to buy freshly made spaghetti, fettuccine and ravioli. They would then take it home to cook for themselves.

The photo on the following page is a flashback to those early days. It shows Carecci churning out his pasta, next to his Singaporean wife Jasmine and his son Luigi Xianglong (how’s that for a cosmopolitan name?).

“After I’d been making fresh pasta for a few months,” Carecci continues, “people asked if they could eat in the shop rather than cook at home. So we started serving dinners. First we put three tables in. Then we put seven tables in. Then more tables. Things happened very fast. I did almost everything back then. Some nights I slept next to the pasta-making machine, I was so tired.”

The long hours paid off. A second Pasta Fresca was launched at Boat Quay in 1992. As if he wasn’t weary enough, Carecci launched it as a 24-hour venue.

“We made more money between 3am and 5am than we made for the whole day. But there were too many smashed windows. Serving food to drunk people can be a problem!”

The Boat Quay restaurant is still going strong. Since then, more outlets have opened in Singapore, operated by a staff of 85. In China, Carecci has 100 staff members across five restaurants.

While some of the pasta is still made fresh at Bukit Timah, the business now has a factory in order to satisfy a demand of up to 1,000 kilograms a month. Pasta Fresca spaghetti and sauces are sold to airlines and hotels, among others.

Carecci has obviously been through plenty of ups and downs, so it’s no real surprise that he reacts almost flippantly to my mention of the current financial crisis.

“Sometimes a crisis can be a good thing. It gives you a chance to clean things up.”

In the same breath he adds that during the last economic downturn he didn’t retrench a single member of staff.

So, if the business does make it through twenty more years of crises, what would Carecci himself like to be doing?

“Living in China and running my business from there, but also involved in some kind of big charity work.”

I wish him luck. I think Carecci will do well in charity. He was certainly charitable enough to me during our interview. Here, to finish, is a list of what appeared on our table over the course of a 50-minute conversation (it may be twenty years before I need to eat again):

• Grissini casalinghe (homemade breadsticks     wrapped in Parma ham slices)
• Insalata Caprese (a salad of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes)
• Capellini San Giovannese (angel-hair pasta with cherry tomatoes, olives, capers and chilli)
• Penne all’arrabbiata (in a spicy tomato sauce)
• Pizza Napoletana (pizza with tomato, cheese, anchovies and capers)
• Grigliata mista di pesce (grilled seafood, prawns, swordfish, salmon, cuttlefish, served with grilled veg)
• Tiramisu (the iconic Italian dessert)
• San Pellegrino water
• Red house wine
• Grappa

Pasta Fresca da Salvatore is at Block 833, #01-02/03 Royalville, Bukit Timah Road.

Call (+65) 6469 4920, or for menus and other locations. www.pastafresca.com.