In restaurants around the world, the food of Puglia often takes a back seat to the noble gastronomy of Tuscany, Rome and Naples. Pugliese cuisine, after all, embodies the epitome of home cooking — an art of resourcefulness, ingenuity and simplicity. As chef Mirko Febbrile puts it, “Waste not, be creative, and don’t complicate it”.
He should know, since it is exactly the cuisine he will be serving at his much-anticipated new restaurant Fico, which opens May 18 under the auspices of the Lo & Behold Group, who are behind popular establishments like Odette, The Coconut Club, and Le Bon Funk. The gorgeous new space, tucked along the Bayshore end of East Coast Parkway, is Febbrile’s love letter to his native Puglia.
Home to some of the most gorgeous towns in Italy — from the charming bleach-walled alleyways of Lecce to the pebbly coves of Polignano a Mare — Puglia is a rustic wonderland steeped in dusty pink sunsets that fall upon yawning masseria (traditional farm complexes), rustling olive groves and stone walls cast in golden evening light. Febbrile saw the reflections of these distinctive elements as soon as he set eyes on this slice of beachside park halfway across the world in Singapore.
“Doesn’t this remind you of the trulli,” he cooed, pointing to the circular skylight above the kitchen. Trulli are the quaint dome-shaped limestone dwellings of Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Puglia’s south that he’d taken me on a tour of last November when I visited his hometown of Bitonto.
“And you see all these beams?” he said of the jutting planks of concrete holding up the walls above the stove. “They really remind me of the masseria around Puglia.” To be sure, from the outside, the building’s tubular roof does resemble a silo, albeit one thickly draped with bougainvilleas that burst into bloom with every tropical heat wave.
The food at Fico features unfussy twists to traditional Pugliese cuisine. The compact menu offers a range of breads, including focaccina, which Febbrile loves describing as the result of “a focaccia and pizza having a baby”, and fig leaf brioche (Fico is Italian for fig).
There is a classic eggplant parmigiana, grilled baby octopus served with orzo, barley and peas, grilled pork collar with asparagus, and meaty cardoncelli mushrooms from Puglia baked with breadcrumbs, pecorino and parsley.
Like the famous orechiette ladies of the town of Bari, who make the ear-shaped pasta along its narrow, winding streets, Fico will have pasta makers who stand behind a narrow bar that fronts the kitchen. “I want Fico to be about breaking down barriers and this pasta counter is one element of that. You can sit here and eat what the chefs are making or ask them questions… it’s all about making things simple and genuine,” Febbrile enthused.
So too the dessert trolley that rolls around after every meal, heaving with the lightest Italian-style pastries this side of Singapore. Febbrile’s pastry team, helmed by chefs Angelina Terese Teo and Joei Ng, make the most ethereal lemon cannoli I have ever had the pleasure of tasting.
A communal table that seats 14 takes pride of place in the centre of the dining room, a nod to the Pugliese tradition of making new friends over a meal. “At home, it was common for my family to each invite people to gather for a meal in the countryside. You invite a few friends, I invite a few friends, and in the end, you have like 45 people who may not know one another dining together on makeshift tables,” he recalled.
“This is the kind of experience I want to translate at this long table. So, if you come with your friends, you can sit here and share the food. If you end up sitting at this table with strangers, hopefully you can share a conversation and become friends.”
Fico will be the first of two restaurants that Febbrile will create with the Lo & Behold Group. The second, an upscale establishment in the Robertson enclave, is slated to debut next year. Fico marks Febbrile’s maiden foray as a chef-owner of his own restaurant and he is expectedly excited and nervous in equal measure. The last two years have been a journey of personal rediscovery for the 31-year-old who spent time travelling around Puglia speaking to suppliers and artisans, plumbing familiar haunts for inspiration, and delving deep into the food culture of his home, which he left eight years ago to work in Singapore. (He started his career at Il Lido Restaurants & Bars before working his way up to head chef of the Michelin-starred Braci).
Febbrile’s imprints are firmly etched in every detail, including the traditional-style plates he designed with Pugliese ceramics artist Franco Fasano and in the patterned luminarie-style ceiling lights, traditionally used in Puglia’s many festivals of patron saints, that he created with the ateliers of Luminarie Parisi 1876. His aesthetic vision for the space was realised by Nice Projects, whose oeuvre includes French bistro Claudine and Le Bon Funk in Holland Village.
“The process of creating Fico really bonded the Mirko I was as a child in Puglia and the Mirko I am today — married and living in a different country that I really love,” he said with the maturity of a man far beyond his 31 years.
When it opens on May 18, Fico will serve dinner daily (except on Mondays). Come June, the restaurant will serve lunch from Tuesdays to Thursdays, and open all day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. June will also see the debut of Fico’s takeaway kiosk, which will dish out traditional Pugliese snacks like panzerotti (fried dough with savoury fillings), frito misto (fried seafood), and burrata soft serve.
“I want people to think of this more as a lifestyle concept than a restaurant,” Febbrile said as we stared at the beach that fronts Fico, a salty afternoon breeze whipping through our hair. “I want people to come here not for a specific dish or for the food, but because they like the vibe and the people. I hope this place brings people together.”
Source : CNA Lxury