When Braci opened late last year, local diners were at first skeptical and then pleasantly surprised to see owner and restaurateur of the Il-Lido Group, Beppe De Vito, donning his apron and manning the pass at this cosy restaurant. Having spent the past two decades in Singapore opening up a number of fine Italian restaurants, De Vito is most immediately recognised as ‘Beppe the restaurant manager’. It was only in the recent years that “diners have come to realise that I’m more than just that; I’m Beppe the restaurateur and Beppe the chef”.
At 44 years old, De Vito has spent half of his life carving out his niche in the local restaurant scene. For the native of Bari in South Italy, the passion for food formed when he was still a child, working at his neighbourhood cafe, and watching and helping his mother out in the kitchen. It firmly took shape when he decided to enrol in one of Italy’s top schools of hospitality.
1. TIRAMISU, FROM OSTERIA ART
De Vito chuckles as he reminisced about his first forays into cooking, “The tiramisu was the first dish I ever made. I used to wake up really early everyday to get to school so Sunday mornings were the only time I had the opportunity to sleep in a little more. The thing was, my sisters had to go to church – I didn’t care for church – and their chores included making the beds before leaving for church. I didn’t want to wake up early for that so I struck a deal with my mother to let me sleep in and have her do my bed instead. In exchange for that, I would cook her something.”
“My mum is a much better cook than I am but she never made desserts, so that was my leverage. I ended up making a lot of cakes and pastries, but the tiramisu was the first thing I really trained to do well,” he notes. At first, he had to keep buying cream because he kept over-whipping it. “Plus the mascarpone kept breaking apart and the biscuit was too soft,” he lamented. It would take De Vito months to succeed in making a tiramisu he was proud to serve to his family, but he credits the experience to really disciplining himself into practicing to perfect an art: “I’m never easily satisfied, I always feel like I can do better and that everything can be improved. Learning to make that one tiramisu was probably when I truly started cooking.”
2. RISOTTO WITH WILD MUSHROOMS AND ROBIOLA CHEESE
While he did not enrol into the culinary course within his hospitality management school, the popular Perotti Institute in Bari, De Vito had his teacher from the operations side of the course to thank for providing him with the foundations of his culinary know-how. “My teacher would make us students in the service side go out and buy ingredients to cook on a table-top stove. From desserts to risottos, to pasta from scratch, we had to learn how to make all the basic things. Even though formal training in the kitchen was not in our curriculum, our teacher’s reasoning was that we had to experience budgeting, learn how to buy ingredients and practice cooking to understand the whole operation of running a restaurant.”
He reckons that the risotto was the first dish he had learnt how to prepare professionally, “Risotto is a Northern Italian dish so my parents never made it. I began to get very good at it because we kept practising it in school, and I would also make it at home whenever the family wanted to eat something different. I would start from scratch making the stock and then try out various flavours by using different ingredients like foraged mushrooms and even fruits sometimes. Of course, the seafood version was always the most popular; we would have that as a special occasion celebratory dish.”
Despite having had to “give tips to professional chefs on how to make risotto”, De Vito has stopped serving it at any of his restaurants. “Sometimes we serve risotto as a special but the problem is, you cannot cook risotto for one, it must be at least for two; or best, for a large group of people. There’s a science behind it: you need to toss the rice over heat so if there’s too little rice, it burns faster then turns soggy faster as well. It’s hard to control, so having a large quantity really helps.”
After graduating from his hotel management school, De Vito travelled the world, first taking up a stint on a cruise ship before chalking up more operational and management experience working within the Italian restaurant group Bice’s international outlets in Spain and France. It was through his success at Bice London that the plucky Italian was eventually posted to Singapore in 1995 to help launch Bice at Goodwood Park Hotel.
3. GRILLED VEGETABLE ROLL
“To be honest, I truly started cooking and serving my food professionally in Singapore,” De Vito says. During his time at Bice, he was once left without a head chef and an inexperienced sous chef. He saw it as an opportunity to get into the kitchen and apply whatever he had learnt before and gathered from his travels.
“We had quite a few vegetarian customers asking for grilled vegetables and I remembered Bice London had a very popular grilled vegetable salad dish. I wasn’t happy just putting grilled vegetables on the plate and needed a more exciting rendition. So I put the dish together by using eggplant stuffed with peppers and basil, rolling it up like Japanese maki sushi using a Japanese bamboo rolling mat, then serving it with balsamic vinegar and pesto. It was a simple dish, nothing too complicated but the diners really enjoyed it. I even had customers coming back asking for the dish. That was when I realised, there has to be a certain accommodation to what customers want, then they’ll be willing to come back.”
Bice restaurant closed in 2000 but De Vito would go on to make waves again in the contemporary Italian dining scene with the opening of Garibaldi in 2003, and then again in 2005 when he left Garibaldi to set up his own establishment, ilLido. From there, he has built a reputable restaurant empire.
As it is with any restaurateur willing to take the risk, De Vito has had his fair share of restaurant concepts and overseas ventures not working out. But that has not deterred his recent spate of restaurant openings – &SONS Bacaro in December 2013, Southbridge rooftop oyster bar in September 2014, Osteria Art fine dining in May 2015, Aura at National Gallery Singapore in October 2015 and his intimate casual-luxe open-kitchen restaurant Braci in September 2016.
4. SEA URCHIN CARBONARA, FROM &SONS BACARO
“&SONS was born out of wanting to make our own stuff,” De Vito explained. Busy Italian cafe by day and trendy bar by night, the casual and accessible joint comes complete with a salami bar where meats are cured in-house and everything from the pasta to breads and pastry are made on-site, and then sent across to the other restaurants in the group.
This sea urchin carbonara dish is a spin on the classic carbonara by replacing the traditional sauce with a sea urchin sabayon that tops the spaghetti. The sabayon contains sea urchin, fresh eggs and creamy butter, while the silky smooth guanciale (cured pork jowl or cheek) bits have been lightly toasted to add a crispy texture to the dish. “I saw the diners’ increased appetite for sea urchin and that prices for sea urchin were becoming more competitive. Hence I decided to have this dish to encourage more diners to embrace more artisanal produce, like our house-made guanciale,” De Vito said.
Like a proud father, he shares, “I see &SONS as a test kitchen of artisans, a laboratory of sorts where we experiment making our own stuff. The idea is to pass on this knowledge to the next generation, the future. It wasn’t about my own family or my own name; the emphasis is on the next generation, hence the name &SONS. I was able to put together quite a young team of able people to work on this.” This team has since produced talented chefs who have moved on to head restaurants like Aura and Braci.
5. AGED DUCK WITH APPLE AND CRISPY SKIN, FROM BRACI
“The idea for Braci first came about more than five years ago when I got a bit fed up with the restaurant scene and the constant unreliability (of staff and partners),” De Vito reveals. To solve the problem, he took a cue from Japanese izakayas that serve only a dozen diners and required less manpower operationally. The idea to go back to the basics and to cook over wood fire was gradually picking up as a global culinary trend, so when De Vito chanced upon the Boat Quay shophouse space where Braci is located, he decided to strike when the iron was hot.
“You can’t hide with wood-fire cooking; there’s no fixed steps to follow,” De Vito notes. Dry-aged in-house for four days, the duck for this dish is sous vide to 62 degrees for exactly 40 minutes. But the precision ends there. The grilling of the duck is where De Vito’s understanding of the meat and of the fire comes into play. “The oven’s fire intensity at 7pm is different from at 9pm so can I say for sure that the duck needs to be cooked on the grill for 50 seconds each side? No I can’t. I’ve got to be there to look at the meat. Sometimes the heat of the oven is not strong and the charring is slower so we got to be careful not to dry the meat inside.”
“I didn’t want to just serve the duck sous vide, I wanted to add more flavour and character by taking the risk of grilling it. Sometimes there’s more char, sometimes there’s less; it’s a calculated risk that keeps one interested in making the dish,” he says. The execution of this dish taught him the importance of adapting: adapting to ingredients, to equipment, to customers, and to circumstances. “Technique is a combination of culinary knowledge and understanding when to take a second more or less.”
He further shares,“I don’t like to stick to a recipe 100% of the time, I’m always upgrading my dishes,” In the six months that the aged duck has been on the menu at Braci, De Vito has tweaked it a few times. Minor variations include plating the duck skin vertically so that diners can pick them up easily to enjoy on its own and appreciate its crispiness.
6. GIANDUIOTTO WITH FRANGELICO CREAM AND GOLDEN HAZELNUTS, FROM BRACI
“I think the best dish to show how much I’ve grown since that very first tiramisu I made is the Gianduiotto with Frangelico Cream and Golden Hazelnuts,” De Vito says. This signature dessert at Braci took months of research and testing to put together. Wanting to put an original take on a traditional Italian dessert – beyond the tiramisu or panna cotta – on the menu at Braci, De Vito turned to the history books and uncovered gianduiotto. Originated in Turin 160 years ago, this chocolate hazelnut paste is shaped like an upturned boat and usually covered in gold foil. The practice of mixing hazelnuts into chocolate came about during a time when the import of cocoa was banned and its price exorbitant.
To create his gianduiotto, De Vito mixed hazelnut paste with dark, white and milk chocolate, before adding chocolate glaze to provide five different types of cocoa consistencies. Cream made with hazelnut liquor and hazelnuts wrapped in gold flakes complete the decadent dish. “I like how none of the flavours stand out; all the chocolates are melded together to create a rich balance in taste and sweetness. It was difficult to get the consistencies of the chocolate right,” he reveals. But like how when he finally mastered the tiramisu, the resultant dish was worth all the effort.
7. BONE MARROW, WILD GARLIC PESTO AND ANCHOVY SALSA VERDE PIZZA, FROM AMÒ
“It can be the location or the concept that comes up first; but most of the times it’s a combination of the two at the right timing,” De Vito answers when asked about his growing restaurant empire. “Sometimes it can be that we have staff who are looking to grow with new challenges, so it’s about taking stock of our capabilities and matching them to the location and target market.”
This June 2017, De Vito adds yet another concept to his group of restaurants. Amò on HongKong Street will focus on pizzas and large sharing plates. Apart from its wood-fired oven, Amò’s highlights will be the pizzas using pizza dough made from a mother yeast starter De Vito spent the past two years cultivating. There will be four classic flavours – Margherita, Marinara, Bianca, and Romano; but diners know better by now to expect more from De Vito.
“Knowing that we’ll be offering the classic pizza flavours, we decided to go a bit crazy on our other pizza offerings,” De Vito delights in sharing. Playing with colours and texture, Amò’s menu comprises a truffle based pizza; a tomato based pizza with burrata and prosciutto; a pumpkin based pizza with pancetta, friarielli, smoked mozzarella and calabrian chilli; and a wild garlic pesto based pizza with bone marrow, mascarpone, and salsa verde topped with a garden of herbs and fresh radish. “Our pizza menu was created before we tried making the pizzas. We just imagined building layers of flavour that meld together.”
“Inspiration is a study of all the data you have in your head together with all the experiences you’ve gone through in life,” De Vito shares somewhat philosophically as he looks back on his career in Singapore. “I was always very bull-headed and used to be one of those who’d want to rise fast, but I still clocked in my hours. I guess that’s how I gained my longevity as well.”
Any lessons he has learnt throughout his 22 years in Singapore? De Vito replies: “Patience, and to be independent. Without somebody to rely on, you have to work even harder. I still feel like I have to prove myself.” Which is just as well, as De Vito is not slowing down.
“I’m sure there will still be some growth in the next five years, but it’ll be in Singapore. Having tried one or more places overseas, I’m not so keen on that anymore. My kids and wife are here. With overseas concepts I’ll have to be away from home a lot more and I’m not willing to sacrifice that. Here in Singapore, I want to help my people grow. I might not have any fixed plans for anymore new restaurant concepts at present, but you never know. Ask me again tomorrow.”
This article appeared in our first issue in Jun-Jul 2017: Smoke and Fire. Text by Joyce Huang. Photos by Lim Minglong.