As with pizza, risotto and other typical Italian foods, there’s no shortage of strong opinions (especially from Italians themselves) about what is good pasta, but Drew Nocente has earned a right to his opinion more than most.
It’s a lot to say for an Australian chef, but Drew has a bit of Italian blood running in his veins.
There’s also the fact that he runs Cenzo, an Italian-Australian restaurant just a few streets away, dishing out roasted suckling pigs, pastrami sandwiches (anyone remember Salted and Hung?), cannolis, and yes, pasta — lots of it and good ones too.
So when he announced last October that he would be opening a pasta joint, there was naturally a lot of excitement in the foodie community. Though it wasn’t until recently that I found my way to Chicco Pasta Bar’s Instagram page and booked myself a lunch reservation.
The idea for Chicco Pasta Bar is that it’s meant to be a place where everyone can enjoy a plate of top-notch and pocket-friendly housemade pasta at any time.
Taking over the space of the now-defunct The Market Grill (a moment of silence for its incredible 11-year run and lobster rolls), there’s a fun and relaxed vibe here, in contrast to the more formal setting at Cenzo.
The interior is all kitted out in marine blue and flowery wallpaper, like something you’d find in an idyllic Italian waterfront restaurant.
The best seats in Chicco Pasta Bar are at the open kitchen’s counter where, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see chef Drew in action — he’s usually slinging pasta and firing up meats at Cenzo and only pops in maybe twice a week.
If you’re expecting the same level of food, ambience and service as Cenzo, you won’t find it here. Chicco Pasta Bar is more of a casual pasta spot than a romantic date night escapade and it’s priced as such.
It’s the kind of place where you don’t have to dress up for or spend a fortune to have a good time.
The food is very good for the price you pay, which is saying a lot for a part of town where simple mains typically cost upward of S$20.
In comparison, the pastas here — all made in-house daily — start from S$18, while focaccias are a very attractive S$12. Don’t get me started on the lunch set menu, where you can get a starter, main, and drink for just S$25.
That said, there’s not much in the way of hospitality and interaction. You order through a QR code and the food is brought to your table, without any explanation of what you’re eating.
What it’s good for
There’s a grilled cauliflower with garlic chilli (S$12) that’s singularly terrific. The edges are slightly charred on the edges giving a nutty and lightly smoky aroma and the florets were tender to the bite.
But the real showstopper is the seductive sauce: Salty, tangy, buttery, and umami all at once, with a kick of spice and flavours from chilli, garlic and parsley. They could call this dish “garlic chilli sauce with cauliflower” and I’d still be sold.
The mortadella, peppers and pecorino focaccia (S$12) is a very tasty thing. It’s laden with large slices of disarmingly silky mortadella, which come with a healthy dose of pork fat that just adds to the flavour, along with crushed pistachios and pickled red peppers that’s been charred till soft.
Everything sits on a bed of crusty focaccia halves and a mellow, nutty spread of pecorino and butter that adds funk to the mix. The dimension and depth in this dish is stunning.
Chicco’s pasta, which is made daily, should be full of slipperiness, bite and tension, and the conchiglie with slow-cooked beef and smoked tomatoes (S$22) is mostly that, except for a few errant seashell pieces that feel a bit thicker and chewier than the rest.
The ragu-type meat sauce is outstanding and the beef and tomatoes have slumped down after plenty of time in each other’s company to become the glossiest of sauces — beefy, tangy and sweet all at once — that cling to each shell of pasta. There are even still some fatty, gelatinous parts from the beef that melt on the tongue.
The allure of a zesty limoncello spritz (S$14, or S$10 before 3pm) during lunchtime is too much to resist and a heaping glass of that quickly arrived on my table within minutes of being seated.
Limoncello tastes sweet with an intensely concentrated citrus flavour, like drinking lemon candies, but when spritzed up with prosecco and a bit of sparkling water, it’s a lot easier to handle.
A great early afternoon’s cocktail that’s refreshing and well-balanced, but beware if you’re headed back to the office after this — it’s a strong drink.
What it could improve on
I order Chicco Pasta Bar’s pistachio tiramisu (S$12) for dessert and watch as the server removes the plastic sleeve holding a mountain of coffee mascarpone cream together, before it cascades into a messy puddle, reminding me of times when I make tiramisu at home but the cream that hasn’t yet set.
I can forgive the texture and I like the crushed bits of honeyed pistachios, but it’s the taste that disappoints — mostly cream with a hint of coffee liqueur and barely any tang or nuttiness from the mascarpone.
The base is confusing as well, parts of it are as soft as sponge cake, while there are some harder ladyfingers biscuits, which escaped being dipped in coffee liqueur. It’s not too bad as a dessert, but you can hardly call this tiramisu.
Our quick takes
Is it conducive to conversation? Not exactly. It gets a bit packed during peak hours.
Is a reservation necessary? Reservations recommended, especially for big groups.
How to get there? Chicco Pasta Bar is a five- or seven-minute walk from Telok Ayer and Tanjong Pagar MRT stations. respectively.
HungryGoWhere paid for its meal at this restaurant for this review.
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