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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Warm up to down-home Italian

Chef Gabriel Fratini offers honest cooking in a place you can almost call home
The Business Times - October 10, 2013
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Warm up to down-home Italian


Fratini La Trattoria

10 Greenwood Avenue

Tel: 6468-2868

Open for lunch and dinner Tues to Sun: 12pm to 3pm; and 6pm to 10.30pm (Closed on Mondays)

FOR some, the name Fratini will ring a bell. It'll also show how old you are if you remember that Gabriel Fratini used to head his own namesake restaurant in Neil Road and then in Ngee Ann City - before Imperial Treasure eventually took over the fourth floor space to "annoy" arch-rival Crystal Jade.

But that's another story. The tale at hand is about how Fratini has come full circle since he left (with Singaporean wife and kids in tow) in the late 1990s for Indonesia, Australia, then home to Italy and is now back in the Singapore saddle with a cosy set-up all his own in Greenwood Avenue.

Things have changed from the old days when chef-owners were rare, high-spending diners were fewer and Italian food was cooked by actual Italians. Fratini returns to a playing field where money is flush, dining options are exploding but the burnout rate is high. With Italian restaurants flooding the F&B scene, the challenge for Fratini isn't so much how well he can cook but how he can stand out.

For that, Fratini has picked a game plan that, despite a surfeit of chefs/restaurateurs pursuing the next new trend or the sharpest designer hotspots, relatively few still subscribe to - the "cult" of the chef personality. We're not talking about celebrity chefs or similar, but the appeal of a chef who personally cooks your food, serves it to you and is genuinely happy to feed you.

It's a truism that diners like to feel important and that the chefs make an effort to engage them. Fratini La Trattoria is set up just for that.

The moment you step into this tasteful, unassuming eatery in the residential F&B enclave of Greenwood, you will see Fratini himself pottering behind a long bar/prep counter that allows him to work and see exactly what's going on in the dining room. It's an efficient set-up that doesn't require him to have a lot of staff, which works out well given the labour situation.

While he has a couple of servers to do the usual seating and cutlery setting duties, it's a pretty lean operation. It's a blessing in disguise, since it's Fratini who comes out and talks to you about the menu - a pared-down selection that offers a few mainstays so you can just have a straightforward pasta or main dish if you don't like complications. But then you'd be missing out on the real speciality - which is to just leave him to work out a tasting menu for you for $70.

Called Assaggini or the Italian version of tapas, you get little tasting portions (12 items in all) that Fratini cooks up every day based on what fresh and seasonal ingredients he gets. Besides making things unpredictable yet interesting, Fratini's stints as a personal chef to some of Europe's ultra-high net worth also means that he can cook on the fly. So if you throw him a curve ball and ask for something off the menu, he's not likely to blink.

While you wait for your first dish, he plies you with a complimentary platter of snacks that includes shavings of San Daniele ham (from a whole leg on display), tapenade and a nutty truffle spread. Try not to overdo it with his totally addictive deep-fried pizza dough - the Italian version of yu tiao with its crunchy exterior and yielding, chewy interior.

But you won't have time to eat too much anyway, because within minutes, a near free flow of petite plates holding all manner of appetisers start appearing.

With his myriad cooking experiences, Fratini's food is steeped in traditional Italian cooking while displaying a cosmopolitan flair (you wish he would do the same with the cheesy Italian muzak that only a mafioso planning his next hit could love).

For example, instead of basic carpaccio, fatty salmon sashimi is slicked with a slightly tart grainy mustard dressing that could use a bit more than the blood orange to balance out the overpowering mustard, unless you're a fan of the condiment.

In turn, cottony soft-grilled eggplant, matched in texture with cubes of raw scallop drizzled with sundried tomato sauce may be more out of Fratini's cookbook than his grandma's, but is all the better for it given its comforting simplicity.

Raw seafood is normally a deal breaker in restaurants trying to keep costs down. So it's good to note that even though Fratini can't afford the best quality at the prices he charges, he makes sure that it's fresh.

Like his raw tuna with avocado and the kind of tomatoes that briefly transport you to the land it came from.

Of course, the purist is still indulged with the likes of homespun beef stew and peas with a delicate fragrance of sage, or the tender beef fillet given a good topping of melted cheese, although presented in tapas style. While the rigatoni with a bolognaise sauce looks unfamiliar set upright and tied with leafy string, it still tastes like the real thing with the lightly pan-fried tubes plated with the sauce on top.

Not everything grabs you, like an over-cooked prawn and minced seafood canape in pistachio sauce (although the gratinated baby clams with its crumbly topping is a winner) or the slippery-smooth textured tagliolini which needs a more assertive lamb sauce to showcase the quality of the pasta.

But we are totally won over by the delicate silkenness of his homemade ravioli pasta wrapped over fluffy whipped potato-enriched crab and shrimp stuffing, bathed in an almost buttery pistachio sauce. And Fratini's tiramisu - this perfect combination of spongy cake, marshmallowy mascarpone and just the right kick of espresso and liqueur - may well put this oldie back into fashion again. The chocolate mousse comes a close second.

With such a wide repertoire at Fratini's, your favourites may not be the same as your dining companions'. But what all will agree is that the cooking is honest and unpretentious, kind of like Fratini himself. He likes nothing more than to treat a customer as a friend, and he goes all out to make you feel at home. Because, come to think of it, so is he.


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